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Australian casino billionaire Packer should be reconsidered for approval - inquiry

SYDNEY, Nov 5 (Reuters) - An Australian regulator should reconsider its approval of billionaire James Packer as a registered associate of casino company Crown Resorts Ltd due to his “adverse impact on its good governance”, an inquiry heard on Thursday.

The comments came in a closing statement from the lawyer running an inquiry into whether Crown should be allowed to operate a casino in a new, 75-floor tower on the Sydney waterfront that it has spent A$2.2 billion ($1.6 billion) building and plans to open next month.

Though the summing-up remarks are not binding, they raise the chances the inquiry will seek to separate Packer from the company he founded in 2007.

The retired judge overseeing it is due to give formal recommendations by February, and may call for Packer to sell down his one-third stake at a time when Crown shares are in the doldrums due to coronavirus shutdowns.

The inquiry was called by the casino regulator of New South Wales state after media reports accused Crown of dealing with gambling tour - or “junket” - operators with links to organised crime to bring Chinese high rollers to its current flagship asset in Melbourne.

After initially denying the reports in full-page newspaper advertisements, Crown acknowleged in hearings that it had continued relationships with junkets suspected of wrongdoing, before suspending them in September. It has also ended a special agreement to give Packer special access to trading information.

In hearings, Packer acknowledged receiving frequent trading updates and giving strategic instructions despite holding no role at the company other than shareholder, and threatening business associates as he sought, unsuccessfully, to take the company private.

“You should recommend to the (casino) authority that it reconsider its approval of Mr Packer as a close associate of the licencee with regard to his conduct,” the lawyer running the hearings, Adam Bell, told the inquiry.

Packer had, in hearings, cited mental illness as a reason for sending threatening emails to an unnamed business associate, but “there’s been no medical evidence presented to this inquiry by Mr Packer to support a causal connection between his conduct... and bipolar disorder or any other medical condition”, Bell said on Thursday.

“The evidence presented to this inquiry demonstrates that Mr Packer’s profound influence ... had an adverse impact on its good governance, and culture and accountability.”

The hearing continues.

$1 = 1.3947 Australian dollars Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Lincoln Feast.