Commonwealth scandal shows danger of winding back casino oversight

Startling details emerged amid news the Commonwealth Bank was being pursued by financial intelligence agency Austrac for "serious and systemic non-compliance" with anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism laws.

There were stories of how millions of dollars was brazenly fed, via the bank's ATMs, into accounts created with false names by criminal syndicates and whisked offshore.

All up it is alleged $70 million was laundered by criminal groups. The allegations provide a rare glimpse into the otherwise covert world of how criminals go about washing their money from illegal drug trafficking and other ventures.

A new report recommends reducing regulatory oversight of Sydney casinos. Photo: Simon Alekna

A new report recommends reducing regulatory oversight of Sydney casinos. Photo: Simon Alekna

Austrac's action against the Commonwealth came to light in the first week of August.

Fast forward a fortnight and the state government finally released a report it had commissioned into casino regulation in NSW, along with its response.

The report was handed to the government in February 2016 but for reasons unknown it sat on it until last week.

Commissioned in the wake of the decision to grant billionaire James Packer's Crown Resorts a Sydney casino licence at Barangaroo, it was to advise how to "modernise" the NSW regulatory environment and achieve a level playing field with Crown's established rival, The Star.

Broadly speaking, the report advocates reform of NSW casino regulation to a "less prescriptive and more risk-based model" - in other words, less state regulation.

In particular, it holds up the lighter touch regulatory model in place in Victoria - where Packer has long operated a Crown casino - as best practice.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the background of the reviewer, Peter Cohen, of private consultancy The Agenda Group as a former chief executive of the Victorian commission for gambling regulation.

But it follows earlier controversy over moves towards a more "risk-based" regulatory model in NSW, including removing permanent inspectors from casino floors in favour of targeted "intelligence-led operations".

One of the more concerning aspects of the report is its advice to scrap the mandatory five-yearly review of the casino's licence and operations.

The so-called Section 31 reviews are conducted externally by a senior barrister on behalf of the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority.

It has examined issues including loan-sharking, money laundering and the presence of criminals in the casino and ensure the question of whether or not the operator is "a fit and proper person" to hold a licence is regularly considered.

Yet the report makes the surprising argument these investigations are no longer needed due to the existing powers of the regulator to detect and act upon wrongdoing.

These powers meant "it is not conceivable that a situation might ever arise where the casino operator could be found not to be 'a suitable person to continue to give effect to the casino licence' as a result of a review under section 31 of the Act".

Even more astoundingly, the report says they are too valuable to close down.

"Given the investments made by the operators in their properties it is not believable that the authority could ever come to the conclusion from a review conducted under section 31 that it is no longer in the public interest that the casino licence should continue in force," he says.

It's a frank admission that the ultimate sanction - loss of the casino licence - will never be imposed by the regulator or the government.

In its response, the Berejiklian government says it is actively considering following the recommendation to scrap Section 31 reviews.

The report states that the police, NSW crime commission and Austrac were all consulted in the course of its preparation.

But the Commonwealth Bank scandal is a timely reminder of how successful criminals can be in detecting and exploiting weaknesses in large institutions.

If you think the comparison between the bank and NSW casinos is far-fetched, recall that a condition imposed upon Crown's Sydney licence: that it has no associations with Stanley Ho, the Hong Kong-based businessman who has been linked to Triad organised crime.

At the time the condition was imposed, Packer was at the time in a casino partnership with Ho's son, Lawrence, in Macau.

It beggars belief that the NSW government would be considering further reducing casino regulatory oversight.

This story Commonwealth scandal shows danger of winding back casino oversight first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.