Outgoing Star Entertainment chairman John O'Neill reassured casino top brass that the gambling company was doing "covert" work in a bid to stop public hearings into allegations of mismanagement, an inquiry has been told.
Mr O'Neill on Tuesday continued his testimony at the inquiry examining whether the gaming company is fit to keep its Sydney casino licence.
The inquiry, helmed by Adam Bell SC, is probing Star after allegations it enabled suspected money laundering, organised crime, fraud and foreign interference at its venues, including its Sydney casino.
Several Star senior managers, including managing director and chief executive Matt Bekier, chief financial officer Harry Theodore, chief casino officer Greg Hawkins, and chief legal and risk officer Paula Martin have left in recent months.
Mr O'Neill, who tendered his resignation as chairman last week, was on Tuesday asked about an internal casino email he sent to a Star director in October 2021, following critical media reports, stating there was "overt and covert work underway".
That work, according to the email, was of "extreme urgency" to achieve the company's number one objective of ensuring the Bell review "remains in camera".
Mr O'Neill said the overt work referred to conversations with the chair of the NSW gaming regulator, while covert operations were communications by Star's internal government relations team with ministerial staff.
Mr Bell asked the witness: "How could you have considered it part of your proper role as chair ... to be taking steps to prevent these public hearings from occurring?"
"It was not a matter of trying to stop them .. it was to get information in front of people as to an opportunity to buy some time," Mr O'Neill replied.
He said there was no "bad intent" and insisted "a strong preference that the Bell review remained in camera is a fairly normal reaction by the business".
Also on Tuesday, Mr O'Neill was grilled over briefings, in the same month, he gave to select large Star shareholders who he said requested urgent meetings.
Following the meetings, the inquiry was told Mr O'Neill sent an internal email in which he used the phrase "my investor meeting" and included an attached newspaper article about an increase in Star's share price.
Counsel assisting Naomi Sharp suggested the email showed Mr O'Neill "took price-sensitive information to a select group of investors and not the wider market" and queried whether it raised concerns about continuous disclosure obligations.
"I don't believe it was price-sensitive information Ms Sharp," Mr O'Neill said.
He was also questioned about a 2018 KPMG report critical of Star's anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing program, with Mr O'Neill saying he was "exceptionally surprised and alarmed" when he learned of it and conceding the document should have been disclosed to the NSW gaming regulator.
Mr O'Neill, who at times choked back tears, conceded Star was "underdone on risk and compliance" and should have been alert earlier to problems, saying "the buck stops with the board on culture and the leadership team".
He attributed some of the problems to a major cost-cutting program at the company before the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said Crown Resorts - Star's competitor - previously had 30 people in its risk and compliance area but now had almost 130, with Star on the same path.
Mr O'Neill has previously told the inquiry parts of Star's business went very badly wrong, especially its international rebate and VIP divisions.
The inquiry continues on Wednesday.
Australian Associated Press
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