SYDNEY, AAP – A Star Entertainment boss has been grilled at a casino inquiry over whether The Star Sydney had a deliberate strategy of shifting local players to an international rebate program, in order to pay less gaming tax.
The NSW gaming regulator inquiry is probing the fitness of Star to hold a Sydney casino licence and has so far prompted the resignation of Star CEO Matt Bekier last month in the wake of damning testimony.
The royal commission style inquiry was prompted by reports of Star enabling suspected money laundering, organised crime, fraud and foreign interference.
In his second day on the witness stand, Star’s chief NSW casino officer, Greg Hawkins, was quizzed over whether he knew of an alleged practice at the Sydney casino of switching local players to international rebate programs for tax breaks.
The inquiry was told the duty payable by the casino on an international rebate player was 17.5 per cent lower than that levied on a regular NSW player, making it a “distinct commercial advantage” to The Star Sydney to switch players over.
Mr Hawkins said the casino would not want such a practice to occur “en masse”, but conceded some staff on the “main gaming floor” worked to get eligible players to sign up to its international rebate program.
“My understanding it was quite a small number,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Hawkins was examined about the casino’s shutdown between March and June 2020 due to COVID-19, denying the closure was disregarded in assessing whether patrons qualified for the international rebate program.
For players to be eligible for the international rebate program, they could not spend more than 183 days in Australia in a year, but counsel assisting, Naomi Sharp SC suggested this was breached during the pandemic when borders were shut.
“I understand that we could not disregard the casino closure days,” Mr Hawkins told the inquiry on Wednesday.
“But you did disregard them as it turns out, didn’t you?” Ms Sharp asked.
“No,” the witness said.
“That’s not correct, is it?” the barrister then submitted.
“I don’t think I disregarded the closure days in my assessment,” Mr Hawkins replied.
The NSW gaming regulator asked Star to assess the residency status of several patrons over the pandemic period, but there were problems with the casino’s “rebate audit” on seven players, the inquiry was also told.
“I accept that the checklist was missing for those customers,” Mr Walker said, telling the inquiry that casino workers did not think it had to be completed.
Ms Sharp then put to him: “What you’re saying, respectfully Mr Hawkin, makes absolutely no sense”.
Mr Hawkins was also taken to documents indicating he allocated 50 eligibility points for the international program to a patron for whom there was only evidence of an entry to Australia in December 2019 – and no exit – in casino files.
The same patron had an Australian home address, the inquiry was also told.
“It looks like you’ve made a mistake,” Ms Sharp submitted.
“I accept that,” Mr Hawkins said.
Asked about the casino’s controversial use of China Union Pay debit cards and whether “sham invoicing” took place, Mr Hawkins accepted that the CUP process was set up to get around the direct use of the card to purchase gaming chips.
The inquiry was told high roller Phillip Dong Fang Lee used the CUP card to take out $30 million over some months, which raised potential money laundering flags.
“I accept that the practice was not appropriate,” the witness said of the casino’s CUP card process.
The inquiry continues on Thursday