he New South Wales Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) will conduct an inquiry into James Packer's sale of his stake in Crown Resorts to Hong Kong-based casino operator Melco. Its owner, Lawrence Ho, bought almost 10% of Crown from James Packer at the same time as he was a director of a company banned from involvement with Crown due to its links with Ho’s father, Stanley, documents show, according to The Guardian Australia.
The sale of AUD 1.76 billion in shareholdings from Packer's CPH Crown Holdings to Lawrence Ho's Melco Resorts and Entertainment Limited was announced in May this year. It represents almost half of Packer's stake in the casino giant, leaving CPH with about 26 percent of Crown.
However, the sale, which is yet to be finalised according to the ILGA, has raised questions given ownership restrictions on Crown's casino project in Barangaroo, Sydney. Under an agreement with the ILGA, Crown is prevented from any new business activities with 55 companies and five individuals — one being Lawrence Ho's father, Stanley, and any of his associates.
On Thursday, the NSW Legislative Council agreed to release the list of the banned entities on request from independent MP Justin Field, who said he welcomed the announcement of an inquiry into the sale of shares by Packer, as reported by ABC News. The ILGA said the inquiry will ensure the management of the casino remains free from criminal influence or exploitation, that gaming is conducted honestly and harm to the public is minimised.
On announcing the sale, Packer said he was "thrilled" Lawrence Ho and Melco had chosen to invest in Crown. "I am still vitally interested in Crown's success as a world-class resort and gaming business," he said. "The sale allows me to continue my long-term involvement with Crown and at the same time to better diversify my investment portfolio."
The inquiry will be conducted by former supreme court judge Patricia Bergin SC and will take evidence in public except for when sensitive information is at hand.
Company documents filed in Hong Kong show until 28 June this year Lawrence Ho was a director of Lanceford Company Limited, according to The Guardian. Lanceford was one of 59 companies and people described as associates of Stanley Ho who are banned from doing business with Crown under a previously secret condition of Crown’s licence to build a new casino at Barangaroo in Sydney.
On 30 May, Melco Resorts, where Lawrence Ho is chief executive and owns more than half the shares, agreed to buy almost 20% of Crown from Packer for about AUD 1.75 billion (nearly USD 1.21 billion). Stock exchange filings show the first half of the shares were transferred on 6 June – the remainder are due to change hands by the end of September.
The list of companies and people considered associates of Stanley Ho, who was banned in 2014 from having any role in Crown Resort’s Barangaroo license due to his alleged associations with organised crime, was tabled in NSW parliament on Thursday morning. The ILGA will also look at various matters raised in recent media reports published by the Nine Network, the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age relating to Crown Resorts.
These include that the AFP had been investigating allegations of money laundering at Crown’s Melbourne casino at the time the NSW regulator was conducting its probity review into Crown’s suitability to operate a high-roller casino at Barangaroo in 2013-14.
The previously secret list of banned companies and persons associated with Stanley Ho does not include Lawrence, Stanley Ho’s only son, or Melco, which was a business partner of Crown for a decade. However, the list does include three of Lawrence’s sisters, who serve as directors in Stanley Ho’s labyrinthine empire, and two of Stanley Ho’s wives, including Angela Leong, who is a serving member of the assembly governing Chinese gambling enclave Macau.
The Hong Kong company documents show the three banned sisters - Pansy Ho, Daisy Ho and Maisy Ho – are also directors of Lanceford and reveal its shareholders are two British Virgin Islands companies that are also on the banned list, Action Winner Holdings and Ranillo Investments.
The list also includes two companies listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange that are dominated by the Ho family, SJM Holdings, which runs casinos in Macau, and Shun Tak Holdings, a conglomerate with interests spanning property development, hotels and ferries. Shun Tak and Melco do business together to transport gamblers from Hong Kong to Melco’s casinos in Macau, the only territory in China where casino gambling is legal.