Australia: Perth Casino Royal Commission chair says personal connections to witnesses not a ‘conflict of interest'

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The ex-judge leading Perth's royal commission into the Burswood casino run by Crown Resorts has revealed his personal connections to three witnesses called to front proceedings but does not believe any are a conflict of interest.

An eventful opening day of a new block of hearings also saw former Crown Resorts director John Poynton single out the company's chairwoman and the New South Wales gambling regulator for putting him under pressure to resign.

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Neville Owen, a former senior Supreme Court of Western Australia appeals judge, made a statement on Monday about his relationship with witnesses as the commission gets set to grill current and former Crown Perth staff and board directors on issues of money laundering, corporate culture, the relationship with the WA regulator, and gambling junkets to determine if it is fit to hold a casino licence.

Mr Owen said in relation to Seven West Media chief executive Maryna Fewster, an executive director of Crown Resorts Perth, he had a close personal association with the chairman of the business where she worked - billionaire Kerry Stokes.

The second was former Crown chief legal officer Joshua Preston, whose brother is in a close relationship with some of Mr Owen's children but he does not believe he has met.

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The third was Crown Perth gaming product manager James Sullivan, who went to high school and university with one of Mr Owen's children.

"I was acquainted with Mr Sullivan but don't think I have seen him in the last 16 or 17 years," Mr Owen said.

"None of this raises in my mind a conflict of interest."

Mr Owen is the chair of the royal commission and is being assisted by fellow former Supreme Court judge Lindy Jenkins and former WA auditor-general Colin Murphy.

Electronic gaming machines in the firing line

Poker or ‘pokie' machines are outlawed in WA, unlike many eastern states, but the Perth casino has been allowed to have ‘electronic gaming machines' - which are supposed to replicate floor games in a digital format - since it opened in 1985.

Counsel assisting the commission, Patricia Cahill SC, said in her opening address on Monday it appeared policy changes over the past 17 years had led to an erosion of the distinction between electronic gaming machines and pokies.

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"The commission wishes to examine in particular whether when developing the electronic gaming machine business, the licensee and others involved in the operation of the Perth casino have given too great a focus to increasing revenues from electronic gaming machines, at the expense of giving proper emphasis to the need to minimise the risk of harm from electronic gaming machines," she said.

"The commission is interested to understand whether and to what extent those involved in the operations of the Perth casino have contributed to or influenced that policy development and to the extent that they have whether in doing so they have exhibited appropriate deference to the prohibition of poker machines in this state and the need to minimise harm to the patrons of the Perth casino."

There were 200 electronic gaming machines at the casino when it first opened but the figure has since grown to 2500 units which are responsible for about half of the casino's annual gaming revenue.

WA regulator flexes its muscles

Although the Gaming and Wagering Commission itself and the relationship between its staff and employees at Crown are under scrutiny in the inquiry, the watchdog's lawyer said on Monday it would continue to discharge its regulatory responsibilities.

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Paul Evans told the commission the GWC would continue to consider whether it was appropriate to make or vary directions for the casino as proceedings continued.

Mr Evans said the GWC was also concerned about whether Crown Perth had misled the regulator during casino briefings in recent years.

Without knowing where the inquiry would be heading, Crown Resorts' legal representative, Kanaga Dharmananda SC, told the hearing the company accepted responsibility for its failings and was working earnestly to change.

"There has been great change and works are continuing, some of the matters likely to be subject of attention in the inquiry happened under the watch of a different company, in effect," he said.

"The ways of old have been set aside and a change at the level of structure, ethos, and people.

"Crown has committed to transform its operations, processes for review, and culture."

The change at Crown is taking place without one of its most recently departed board directors, John Poynton, who was also the chairman of Crown Perth and who resigned from his positions on both entities in March.

Mr Poynton is the first witness of the new block of hearings and will appear before the commission on Wednesday.

The prominent Perth businessman's lawyer, Peter Ward, said his client wanted it to be noted the New South Wales inquiry into Crown's casino in Sydney made no adverse findings against Mr Poynton.

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"The inquiry's report contemplated that Mr Poynton would continue as a director of Crown Resorts to assist in resolving the issues raised in that inquiry," Mr Ward said.

"Notwithstanding that outcome, Mr Poynton was placed under significant pressure by both the chair of Crown Resorts [Helen Coonan] and the NSW regulator both privately and in media statements and he ultimately resigned from both boards at the start of this year."

Mr Ward said the resignation should not be taken as an admission he had cause to resign.

"To the contrary, Mr Poynton considered that it was in the best interests of Crown that he as an experienced and respected director, who had only been recently appointed to the board of Crown Resorts and had therefore not been in a position when the problems that led to the Bergin inquiry developed, he could quite properly help guide the company out of those difficulties and to address the cultural issues that have since attracted so much criticism," he said.

"Unfortunately he was not afforded that opportunity."

Mr Ward also rejected suggestions in the media that his client was trying to start up a consortium to buy Crown Perth if it was divested after the inquiry.

"Mr Poynton has asked me to make it clear right at the outset there is absolutely no truth in that media report," he said.

Upcoming witnesses for the inquiry include current Crown Perth chief executive Lonnie Bossi, former boss Barry Felstead, and Ms Coonan.

The inquiry was recently extended from November to March next year.

An interim report by the commission provided last month to the state government will be made public in August when Parliament next sits.

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