James Packer might be big on loyalty but he also has a long history of offloading investments with trusted colleagues (i.e. Seek, Nine, Carsales and his father’s big pastoral business) and throwing executives under the bus.
Yesterday at the Bergin inquiry it was long-time Crown chief executive Rowen Craigie and former Crown chairman Rob Rankin who were dropped in it for supposedly letting him down with the 2016 China arrests.
The Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer columnist went with this “thrown under the bus” line all over the back page of today’s paper.
However, it was the extraordinary evidence from Tuesday which continues to reverberate as information leaks out about the contents of the now notorious 2015 email exchanges with the so-called “Mr X” from an undisclosed private equity company dubbed Z Co.
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The AFR’s Street Talk column revealed yesterday afternoon that Mr X was Ben Gray, the then Australian boss of US private equity firm TPG who had been negotiating with Packer about a $9 billion privatisation deal.
The Australian’s Margin Call column added the following colour yesterday:
The whisper is that Gray actually hired some Australian ex-soldiers to look after him, fearing for his safety in the wake of Packer’s threats.
At this point it is useful to put together a timeline of what happened and when, starting with Packer’s launch of his Crown Sydney Barangaroo proposal in 2012 once he’d discovered just how incredibly lucrative the Chinese high-roller market was proving at his joint venture with Lawrence Ho’s Melco group in Macau.
February 2012: Packer pitches his Barangaroo concept at Barry O’Farrell as an unsolicited proposal just 11 months after he became premier in March 2011.
September 2013: Packer separated from Erica Baxter after six years of marriage when their three kids were aged five, three and one.
November 2013: Crown and the NSW government sign contracts for the Barangaroo casino deal.
May 2014: Packer gets into a street fight in Bondi with his best mate David Gyngell.
June 2015: Packer starts dating Mariah Carey amid lots of talk about his over-the-top Hollywood lifestyle.
August 2015: Packer steps down as Crown executive chairman after seven years and is replaced by Rankin, his hand-picked successor. The plan is for Packer to become an executive director with the title “president global strategy” on a salary of up to $11.5 million a year — but this never eventuates.
October-November 2015: Crown privatisation negotiations with TPG terminated after Packer threatened to harm Gray using his Mossad connections.
December 21, 2015: Packer quits the Crown Resorts board but the ASX statement did not mention mental health issues or the “deep personal crisis” which his lawyer told Bergin explained the “disgraceful” Mossad threats a few weeks earlier.
I had a one-hour meeting with Packer at Crown Melbourne on Christmas Eve in 2014 which was ostensibly to discuss his proposed $1.5 billion, 300-metre-plus apartment and hotel tower at Melbourne’s Queensbridge Square. He was razor sharp — in stark contrast to his apparently heavily sedated appearances at the Bergin inquiry — although his face was red, he was overweight, there was a lot of swearing and he illegally smoked in the office.
Packer was full of bravado about building enormous casinos and taking on the world, but also declared he was more interested in politics than business, was spending a lot of time with friends in Israel, and wanted to educate his children in Los Angeles because there was “too much pressure” being a Packer in Australia.
This seemed very strange for someone supposedly determined to deliver a $2 billion casino gift to his home city of Sydney.
And who would have thought that just 10 months after this meeting Packer would be trying to privatise Crown with the backing of TPG, the firm which almost bought Qantas in 2007 and made about $2 billion in clear profit flipping Myer into the unsuspecting hands of public company investors in 2009.
Now that Gray’s experience has become public, Bergin should insist on the public release of the 13 pages of emails which are said to be truly shocking.
Asked to desist from making threats, Packer is at one point believed to have come back with a two-word email reply: “FUCK OFF.”
It is a federal offence to menace or harass someone using a carriage service and if a judicial inquiry with royal commission powers has clear evidence of that happening, a billionaire like Packer should be publicly examined on these issues.
All we know so far is that Packer has admitted the threats were “shameful” and “disgraceful” — but there has been no public examination about why he was trying to privatise Crown or why the deal fell over.
Packer was compelled to give evidence to this inquiry and the same should happen with Gray.
Commissioner Bergin, it’s time to really let the sun shine in as you determine whether Packer is a fit and proper person to be the controlling shareholder of Australia’s biggest casino company.
Based on everything that has happened to date, the answer is clearly no.