Former medical leaders court controversy in defence of Crown’s gambling interests

By Michael Woodhead

6 Aug 2019

Australia’s former Chief Medical Officer Professor John Horvath and former head of the Federal Department of Health Jane Halton have become embroiled in controversy for defending Crown Casino against media allegations of links to organised crime gangs.

As directors of Crown, the two former health leaders were signatories to a public statement issued by the casino operator’s board rejecting claims made by the Nine Network about corrupt and illegal practices around junket operations used by the gambling industry to attract ‘high rollers’ from Asia.

Among the claims made in the investigation by journalists from The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes were that junket operators were linked to Asian crime gangs, money laundering and drug trafficking.

Using Crown internal documents and testimony from former employees, the media articles and TV programmes claimed that Crown had failed in governance and due diligence on crime and corruption links.

But a statement issued by directors including Professor Horvath and Ms Halton rejected the allegations as “a deceitful campaign against Crown” aimed at damaging the company’s reputation.

“As a board, we are extremely concerned for our staff, shareholders and other stakeholders, as much of this unbalanced and sensationalised reporting is based on unsubstantiated allegations, exaggerations, unsupported connections and outright falsehoods,” said the statement.

Professor Horvath joined the Crown Resorts Board in 2009 as a non-executive director for which his salary in 2018 is reported as $285,516. He was Australian Government Chief Medical Officer from 2003 to 2009, principal Medical Consultant to the Commonwealth Department until January 2016 and a former chair of the NHMRC. A renal specialist, he was famously a personal physician to Kerry Packer, father of Crown’s major shareholder James Packer.

Jane Halton joined the Crown board as a non-executive director in 2017. She was Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing from 2002 until 2014 when she became Secretary of the Department of Finance.

The rebuttal issued by directors including Professor Horvath and Ms Halton was condemned as “false assertions” by David Crowe, Chief Political Correspondent The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Their statement ran as a full-page advertisement in many national newspapers, but failed to convince crossbench politicians such as Zali Steggal and Andrew Wilkie, and former PM Kevin Rudd, who called for an independent inquiry into Crown’s activities.

The media revelations prompted Attorney-General Christian Porter to refer the allegations to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, saying there were “sufficient concerns” to warrant further examination. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission has also confirmed it is investigating the operation of agents who bring high-roller clients into casinos to gamble on junkets.

Some media outlets have suggested that Professor Horvath and Jane Halton may face prosecution for their role as directors of Crown if the investigations reveal the company engaged in misconduct.

Board directors could be prosecuted by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) over not having acted in the best interests of the company if misconduct, which they should have known about, were revealed, Dr Bede Harris, a law professor at Charles Sturt University, told the New Daily.

Until recently James Packer was the major shareholder and director of the $8 billion Crown Resorts gambling empire, but recently sold off shares and relinquished his controlling interest following a series of scandals including the arrest and jailing of Crown executives in China for gambling crimes, and Melbourne’s Crown Casino being fined for fixing pokie machines.

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