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Director of Australia's Crown cites 'pressure' over faulty advert as AGM looms

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A director of Australia’s Crown Resorts Ltd told an inquiry she felt pressured by its then-chairman to sign a now-discredited newspaper advert attacking negative media coverage, just as shareholders on Thursday called for her to be voted out.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Australia's top casino operator Crown Resorts adorns a fence surrounding the Crown Perth hotel and casino complex in Western Australia, Oct. 20, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Bunch/File Photo

Jane Halton, a former top bureaucrat who sits on several company boards and chairs global vaccine advocate Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said she later became aware the ad featuring her signature contained false information.

Halton’s evidence came during a government inquiry to decide whether Crown can keep its licence to operate casinos, just two months before it is scheduled to open a A$2.2 billion ($1.57 billion), 75-floor tower in Sydney - and a week before Halton seeks board re-election at Crown’s annual general meeting (AGM).

Asked by a lawyer at the inquiry, Nicole Sharp, if she felt pressured to sign the full-page advert which called media reports a “deceitful campaign”, Halton said, “Yes, Ms Sharp”.

Asked from whom she felt pressure, Halton said, “Certainly the chairman, I can be confident of that.” She said she also felt pressure from some independent directors.

Then-chairman John Alexander also previously agreed with the inquiry that some claims in the advert were untrue.

Reuters could not immediately reach Alexander for comment. Crown did not respond to a request for comment.

The inquiry was sparked by reports saying Crown did business with tour, or “junket”, operators with suspected links to organised crime. Crown responded at the time through an advert in which the board said the company used a single, Hong Kong-listed junket.

Halton said she now accepted Crown actually did business with several junkets at the time - none listed in Hong Kong.

Asked about Crown’s claim in the advert that it had a “robust” vetting process for junkets, Halton said, “I accept it was not robust. There was a process that was robust (but) it could have been better.”

During the testimony, the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) - representing owners of about 7% of Crown stock - called for shareholders to vote against Halton and two other directors standing for re-election on Oct. 22.

“Investors will be looking for director accountability for their oversight of governance failures identified” during the inquiry, ACSI Chief Executive Louise Davidson said in a statement.

“What we have heard in the inquiry reflects poorly on the board as a whole. A number of long-serving directors should be considering their position in light of what has emerged.”

($1 = 1.4017 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Christopher Cushing