Star’s ex-chief shown door after preparations for ‘war’

Jack Gramenz |

The former head of the beleagured Star casino admits he overreacted about a regulator’s moves.
The former head of the beleagured Star casino admits he overreacted about a regulator’s moves.

Emotions got the better of Star Entertainment’s boss when treating a desktop notification as a sign the hobbled gaming giant should “ready for war”, he concedes.

Robbie Cooke says he knew he was not invited to a January meeting that the casino’s independent manager planned with three law firms about the future of Star’s lucrative Sydney licence.

But it was not until later that the then-Star Entertainment Group chief executive realised the meeting was confidential, he told a second inquiry into the casino’s suitability for the licence on Wednesday.

Mr Cooke said that – in hindsight – he overreacted.

“My response might have been a little bit emotive and probably operating under a sense of being under a bit of assault,” he said.

Mr Cooke has since been shown the door out of the executive suite and lost his role as a consultant while his former employer faces a new in-depth inquiry into whether it can lawfully operate its casino.

He told the inquiry he learned of the meeting when independent manager Nicholas Weeks booked a room in Star’s corporate office, triggering a notification to Mr Cooke’s executive assistant.

Star's former chief Robbie Cooke.
Star’s former chief Robbie Cooke denied executives were preparing to fight the casino’s regulator. (HANDOUT/NSW INDEPENDENT CASINO COMMISSION)

Counsel assisting the inquiry Caspar Conde suggested Mr Cooke had attributed war-like intentions to Mr Weeks and the law firms, which he denied.

The second inquiry led by Adam Bell SC into the casino’s suitability to hold a licence began public hearings earlier in April following concerns that Star’s reformation progress was attributable to Mr Weeks’ appointment rather than company leadership.

Mr Weeks got the job after Mr Bell’s first inquiry found Star unfit to hold a Sydney casino licence.

The decision followed revelations of a notorious gang-linked junket operator running an illicit cage and Chinese debit-card transactions being disguised as hotel expenses.

After learning of the January meeting, Star executive chair David Foster sent a message to Mr Cooke that read: “They are prepping for war. We better do the same.”

Mr Foster told the inquiry he was “trigger happy” and made the comments in the heat of the moment.

Mr Cooke also said he was preparing for multiple possibilities when he wrote: “We are meeting Monday to get ready for war”.

“We were just getting ready for what might have been coming, that’s a text, that’s a moment in time, so there was a bit of heat at that point as well,” he told the inquiry.

“I don’t accept the conclusion this shows an intention to be taking a non-cooperative approach with the regulator.”

When pointed to the fact his message used the word “war”, Mr Cooke said it was in the context of trying to anticipate and prepare for whatever came from the meeting.

The Star casino in Sydney.
A second inquiry is being held into the Star casino’s suitability to hold a licence. (Flavio Brancaleone/AAP PHOTOS)

Star director Anne Ward said she was surprised and disappointed by the content of the messages, agreeing they were likely to damage people’s trust in the group, as well as damaging its relationship with Mr Weeks and the NSW Independent Casino Commission.

“I imagine we’ll be challenged by … knowledge of those messages,” she said on Wednesday.

Ms Ward accepted Mr Conde’s suggestion that Star had the wrong leadership in place if the company was saying it was being transparent and accountable in public while its chairman and CEO sent the messages they did in private.

The commission advised the Star board in December it had lost confidence in Mr Cooke’s leadership.

He departed in March, less than two weeks after Mr Foster advised him the board did not think he would help get the casino’s licence back, Mr Cooke earlier told the inquiry.

He remained a consultant with Star for about three weeks but does not expect to return to the company after his role was terminated during the latest round of public hearings.