How Australia's Crown casino got visas for its Chinese high rollers

Tuesday 11th February 2020

Crown casino's "special arrangement" with the Australian government gave Chinese high rollers access to fast-tracked Australian visas and allowed Crown itself to vouch for people's character, according to details released under freedom of information laws.

For 13 years, the Australian government allowed Crown to lodge bulk applications on behalf of Chinese nationals and then act as the middle man for applicants who hit a roadblock.

The arrangement was set up under the Howard government in 2003 after "discussion between Ministers' offices at the time" and lasted until 2016, when the dramatic arrest of Crown employees in China in late 2016 prompted the Department of Home Affairs Mike Pezzulo to cancel the deal.

It first came to light last year after former Crown Resorts employee Jenny Jiang blew the whistle on the powerful organisation and alleged that Crown's desire to penetrate the lucrative Chinese market had been facilitated by Australian consulate staff in China.

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The FOI documents reveal that the Australian government set up a single point of contact in the Australian Consulate in Guangzhou, where they could lodge bulk applications on behalf of Chinese nationals regardless of where they live.

Australian officials held frequent meetings with the company to fast-track visas for its "high roller" clients and a dedicated consulate official was nominated to liaise with Crown representatives on issues with applications as they arose to provide an opportunity for them to clarify any concerns.

In 2010, a new system was introduced involving checklists, which were completed by Crown representatives who were expected to vet applications "to ensure that applications are only presented for bona fide visitors" and that supporting documentation provided was "accurate and genuine".

"These representatives may also attest that they know the applicants personally," the agreement between Crown and the immigration department said.

The immigration department documents do not include any detailed discussions of the risks that the visa arrangement might unwittingly lead to, including breaching Chinese laws banning companies from gathering groups of gamblers to visit overseas casinos, and the limits in Chinese laws on how much money can be taken out of the country.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have previously revealed that some of these risks were realised, with leaked Crown files showing the company sometimes relied on the word of organised criminals to vouch for the character of visa applicants. For instance, internal Crown emails reveal the casino company used high roller agent, Tom "Mr Chinatown" Zhou, a suspected organised crime boss, to vouch for a number of high rollers as they sought Australian visas.

A federal law enforcement watchdog launched an integrity investigation following reports by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes last year on Crown's efforts to attract ultra-wealthy Chinese gamblers to its casinos in Melbourne and Perth, sometimes with the assistance of firms backed by powerful Asian crime gangs.

The documents reveal that, when a visa application was refused, the dedicated consular official "informs the Crown representative directly", which "allows Crown the opportunity to assist in explaining to applicants the reasons for refusal," the document says.

"Crown representatives are aware that calls are often made to clients to verify claims made the application and representatives should advise their clients that they might expect a call following lodgement of the application."

Regular meetings were also held between department officers and Crown representatives to discuss specific issues of concerns as well as "broader issues around the arrangements".

Asked about the arrangements, the department said recently its stakeholder agreement with Crown was the same as it has with "a number of large international organisations" to facilitate the quick visa processing of short stay visas.

"These arrangements always make it clear that applicants are subject to the full range of applicable checks," the department said. "All individual visa applications are assessed against legislative requirements. There is no reduced vetting in certain locations or for certain applicants."

It said the Australian consulates in China were "well aware of the risks that may be present in their caseloads" and that each visa applicant "must meet all requirements, including relevant national security and character criteria".

But Crown internal emails suggest Crown's vetting processes were poor and information it gave to immigration officials may have enabled those of poor character to enter Australia. The emails also reveal staff lobbied Australian officials to expedite the provision of hundreds of visas for junket operator, SunCity, which is accused of organised crime links.

"I will be asking the consulate to give these [applications] special and prompt attention," Crown's president of international marketing, Michael Chen wrote in a September 2014 email about helping SunCity obtain visas.

In another case, Crown intervened on behalf of a Chinese high roller, Chen Rongsheng, who had a criminal conviction for insider trading. Crown's Chen told Australian visa officials in Guangzhou that their client was "one of [our] key target patrons" who would be part of a group of punters prepared to gamble millions of dollars at Crown.

In late 2014, Chen, Crown's then-president of international marketing, wrote to colleagues advising them about when Crown should "activate the emergency line" to Australian immigration officers. It was to be used "only for critical cases (i.e. big customers)" and not "last minute girlfriend additions".

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