The Packers are famously loyal to their royally rewarded retainers, except when they’re not.

So it was that, in the course of his excruciating testimony sur le stinkboat, James Packer dropped former member of the club, ex-Crown chairman Rob Rankin off, then under, the bus.

Packer’s words were mild — “He let me down … he let the side down” — but telling. Rankin’s loyalty to the 36% of Crown that Packer has used to maintain effective control of the casino company had fallen short of requirements. How, exactly, Packer didn’t say.

Rankin also hasn’t chosen to shed any light on his contribution to the Crown shitshow, unfolding like a poorly written episode of Dynasty at the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) inquiry being conducted by Patricia Bergin QC. Future textbooks on how to fail at corporate governance will only need one case study: Crown.

Rankin’s testimony would be crucial to understanding some parts of what went wrong at Crown, because of the timing of his relatively brief term as the board’s chair (August 2015 to January 2016) and then non-executive director (until June 2017). His association with Packer went back to 2005.

October 2016 was when the walls began crashing down, as Chinese authorities arrested 16 Crown employees who had been busily (and illegally) recruiting high rollers on the mainland. Rankin had told Crown management a year earlier that the company needed to be on “high alert” against exactly that risk. According to the other directors, he didn’t tell them.

Then there is the emailed threat Packer made to another businessman in late 2015 in the course of “negotiations”, of which Packer admitted being ashamed. Rankin, it seems, was copied in. Again, the board claimed ignorance of the whole affair.

Now, the Crown board’s ignorance of pretty much everything except their fees looks like a given, based on their collective testimony and the undeniable fact that the company was basically running a sophisticated Chinese laundromat.

But the matrix of failed duty is seriously incomplete without Rankin’s input, and that ain’t coming. Despite being asked to give evidence, Rankin has failed/refused to turn up, despatching only correspondence from his lawyers complaining about natural justice. That, of course, he is absolutely entitled to receive, but it’s a moot point if he elects to remain indisposed.

The ILGA, although it has much the same coercive powers as a royal commission, cannot extend its reach extra-territorially, meaning that Rankin (somewhere in Europe) is outside its legal grasp.

That is no doubt why counsel assisting the inquiry dropped an unsubtle hint on Wednesday, telling Bergin (for the benefit of the media) that, in the absence of Rankin’s evidence, it was open to her to recommend that the ILGA consider referring him to ASIC for investigation.

The referral would likely relate to Rankin’s alleged failure to alert the board of things that he knew which the board needed to know: the threat to staff in China (and, presumably, the underlying knowledge or suspicion that the company was breaking the law there); and the threat made by Packer.

The theory would be that concealing these matters from the board was a failure in Rankin’s basic duty as a director, to act with care and diligence, leading to potential liability for a civil prosecution by ASIC under section 180 of the Corporations Act. The penalties include large fines and disqualification from involvement in the management of corporations for a period.

In extreme cases of director misconduct, a criminal prosecution can arise, but that doesn’t look at all likely here. It’s also not immediately obvious why Rankin should be singled out for ASIC action in the Crown context, underlining the real point counsel was making: a threat.

However it plays out, Rankin faces no real risk of extradition proceedings should he choose to remain both silent and out of the country. It’d be a bad look to become an ASIC poster boy, but who knows whether he’d care.

The truth is that what we know about Rankin’s involvement in, and responsibility and blame for, what went wrong at Crown is almost nothing at all, and that will probably remain so.

About that of the other directors, past and present, we know quite a lot. All of them have cause to worry. Bergin’s final report will be quite the page-turner.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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