‘Arrogant, not listening, not fast enough’: Former Star CEO reveals NSW casino regulator’s gripes

‘Arrogant, not listening, not fast enough’: Former Star CEO reveals NSW casino regulator’s gripes

Robbie Cooke, the former CEO of The Star Entertainment Group

The Star Entertainment Group's (ASX: SGR) former CEO Robbie Cooke has revealed he was regarded by the NSW casino regulator as being “arrogant, not listening and not moving fast enough” in progressing the company’s plan to restore its suitability to hold a casino licence.

However, it was the combative tone of his response to a progress report issued to The Star’s board from the NSW Independent Casino Commission (NICC) in December that appears to have riled the regulator ahead of the call to hold a second inquiry into the company’s suitability.

Cooke’s resignation as The Star’s CEO on 22 March this year was also a potential sore point, as Caspar Conde, the special counsel assisting Adam Bell SC in his inquiry, suggested to Cooke that a letter he sent to the company’s 8,000 staff informing them of his resignation gave a false impression implying it was the NICC that booted him out.

Day eight of the second Bell inquiry provided Cooke with the opportunity to explain some of the most controversial points raised by the Bell inquiry so far, including allegations that The Star’s senior executives were in a “state of war” with the NICC and Nicholas Weeks, the special manager appointed to oversee the company’s remediation program.

While Cooke, who once headed the Tatts Group, is used to dealing with gaming regulators, the seasoned executive was adamant in his evidence before the second Bell inquiry today that there were matters that he needed to push back on.

In preparing The Star’s response to the NICC’s December report, Cooke conceded his response was “going to be controversial”.

The evidence put into perspective private emails he had with chairman David Foster in February this year in which Foster wrote “all okay, let’s hold onto our hats” ahead of sending The Star’s response to the NICC. In response, Cooke replied to Foster that “the fireworks will be bright and loud”.

Conde put it to Cooke that this was not the language of a CEO and chairman working collaboratively with the regulator, as the company had often portrayed in ASX announcements.

Cooke explained that his response was going to be a “one-way street” that didn’t allow him to reverse his position.  

“I did try to write a response in the cover letter in a way which indicated we were doing so respectfully,” he told the inquiry.

“It was a difficult position for the company because we were taking a contrary position to the manager and some of his views of the company.”

'Controversial', but not 'inappropriate'

While Cooke described the response as controversial, he disagreed it was “inappropriate”.

“My experience having worked in regulated industries for most of my career, interacting with regulators is very important how you do that,” he said.

“Sometimes you do have to take a position that is often difficult. It’s not easy to take that position and then reverse out of it.

“The company was in a position where it needed to put some matters on the table.

“I tried in my drafting to keep it non-emotive and clinical. I’m not sure if the document landed that way.”

As he did with executive chairman Foster’s appearance yesterday, Conde spent some time questioning Cooke over the circumstances surrounding his departure from the company on 22 March, trying to determine whether he had resigned or whether he was pushed by the board.

Cooke noted that his decision to leave The Star was rooted in a conversation he had with Foster following the board meeting on 7 December, where Foster told him that the NICC had lost confidence in his ability to execute the company’s remediation plan.

“The reasons given to me by (by Foster) is that I was regarded as being arrogant, not listening and not moving fast enough,” he said.

Cooke remained steadfast in his evidence that it was ultimately his decision to leave The Star for the reasons stated in the ASX announcement, namely that remaining in the role would not be “conducive to the NICC determining to find The Star capable of becoming suitable to hold a casino licence in NSW”.

He conceded that the board had decided in early March that this would be in the best interest of the company, adding that the decision was mutual.

However, a letter sent by Cooke to the company’s entire staff led to Conde putting to the former CEO that the tone of the letter intimated that it was the chief commissioner of the NICC that was responsible for his departure.

“I don’t read it that way,” said Cooke.

He also didn’t agree with Conde’s assertion that his resignation letter expressed a “state of conflict” between Cooke and the regulator.

On the first day of the Bell inquiry, evidence from special manager Weeks revealed a level of suspicion between the CEO and the NICC that had put The Star in a “fightback stance”.

This was highlighted by the response to a meeting arranged between Weeks, NICC representatives and three law firms on 1 February.

Conde put it to Cooke today that his response to this meeting was “paranoid” in light of his move to seek external legal advice about this meeting.

'Paranoid is a strong word'

“Paranoid is a strong word, but I agree my response was emotive and a sense of being under a bit of assault actually,” says Cooke, although he denied that his interest in the meeting was the result of covert monitoring of the special manager’s movements.

Cooke said he was alerted to the confidential meeting as it was booked in one of the meeting rooms at The Star’s headquarters next to the boardroom.

“Any meeting in that room automatically triggers a note to my EA,” he said. “It’s very unusual for a meeting to be called in those rooms.”

It was at this time that Cooke messaged Foster saying: “They are up to something."  A subsequent message read: "We're meeting Monday to get ready for war.”

Cooke noted in his evidence today that “three law firms midweek in a meeting room next to the boardroom in my corporate office” had drawn his attention.

“I thought there was something about to happen. We were getting ready to plan for what might come.”

Cooke pushed back at Conde’s persistent questioning that he was getting “ready for war”, arguing that it was an “overstatement” from a text message that doesn’t indicate “an intention to take an uncooperative approach with the regulator”.

Responding to evidence presented by former CFO Christina Katsibouba that in mid-2023 Cooke was reluctant for her to share with the group leadership team concerns over “vulnerabilities of the balance sheet” she had raised with him, Cooke denied that he had a closed-door policy.

“In April 2023, the business was experiencing a significant decline in performance,” said Cooke.

“The team was fully alive to what was going on.”

Cooke also disagreed that discussions on material matters were not encouraged among the leadership team.

“I disagree with that completely. Any group leadership team member was able to put anything on the agenda. There were no restrictions, no restraints.

“I had an open-door policy, so anyone had access to me whenever.”

The inquiry continues.

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