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Australia's Crown Resorts to take bets after 17 months in limbo

Casino operator accepts Blackstone buyout after resolving poor governance claims

The New South Wales gambling regulator clears casino operator Crown Resorts to take bets at a $1.5 billion Sydney casino.   © Reuters

(Reuters) -- Australia's biggest state on Wednesday cleared casino operator Crown Resorts to take bets at a 2.2 billion Australian dollar ($1.5 billion) Sydney casino, a breakthrough after a yearslong money-laundering scandal crippled its growth plans.

The decision by the New South Wales gambling regulator ends a state of limbo for Crown's new waterfront resort, which had its license suspended just before opening 17 months ago amid claims of shirking anti-money laundering rules and dysfunctional governance at its other assets.

It also brings a bittersweet resolution for the company's billionaire founder and 37% shareholder James Packer, who spent years campaigning for permission to build the skyscraper, Sydney's tallest, which he once called his gift to his home city.

In the fallout of what became three state regulatory inquiries into Crown, all of which found it unfit for a gambling license, the company accepted an AU$8.9 billion buyout by private equity giant Blackstone Inc BX.N, below its market value before the probes began and COVID-19 movement restrictions squashed its revenue. Blackstone takes control of the company on Friday.

"Crown has rebuilt its gaming model from the ground up, which has meant deep structural change around governance, anti-money laundering measures and corporate culture," said NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority Chair Philip Crawford.

"With a complete clean-out of the board and senior executive, Crown has made significant progress," Crawford added in a statement, which also noted that its license approval would remain conditional for up to two years.

In Victoria and Western Australia, the states where Crown already had operational casinos before the inquiries, the regulators let the company continue taking bets under two years of government supervision, citing the need to protect jobs.

A representative for Packer was not immediately available for comment, while Blackstone declined to comment.

Crown said it had worked closely with regulators and government to overhaul its business and that it remained focused on finishing its reform program. The company expected to employ more than 2,000 people in Sydney, helping the city's hospitality industry in the wake of the pandemic.

Chief Executive Steve McCann, who started in the role in October 2021, 10 months after the Sydney resort opened without its casino, said the company was finalizing plans for a full opening.

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