‘Heat of the moment’: The Star’s chair regrets inflammatory texts with CEO

‘Heat of the moment’: The Star’s chair regrets inflammatory texts with CEO

The Star's executive chairman David Foster.

The Star Entertainment Group’s (ASX: SGR) executive chairman David Foster has blamed the “heat of the moment” for comments that he wanted to see the abolition of the NSW casino authority and the removal of the special manager Nicholas Weeks who was appointed to oversee the group’s casinos in 2022.

In giving evidence before the second Bell inquiry into The Star’s suitability to hold a casino licence, Foster also agreed that suggestions of a potential class action against both the NSW Independent Casino Commission (NICC) and Weeks that he had shared with former CEO Robbie Cooke were “bizarre”.

Foster played down the inflammatory language that was a key focus of questioning last week by Caspar Conde, special counsel assisting Adam Bell SC, as he was laying his narrative of a dysfunctional relationship between Cooke and the casino regulator.

However, Foster also revealed that the board had discussed with the NICC the option of finding a replacement for Cooke as early as December 7 last year at a board meeting where members were told that the regulator had lost confidence in the CEO to implement The Star’s agreed remediation plan.

He also conceded that Cooke had left his role as CEO in March following a call by the board that it was time.

Conde’s early questioning of Foster was aimed at reconciling public comments by The Star that it was working collaboratively with the NICC to restore the company’s suitability with private comments made between the chairman and the then CEO.

“Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, as I said, they were heat of the moment comments,” Foster told the inquiry. “I was trigger happy with a number of my texts.”

"Out of context"

However, Foster later added that “at all times my approach with the regulators was completely constructive, transparent and engaged”.

Foster said his comments about the NICC were based on a desire to see a level playing field as the regulator held sway over gaming regulations on casinos that did not apply to those of pubs and clubs.

His comments about getting rid of Weeks were “taken out of context”, as they related to the operational complexities his role created as special manager of The Star Sydney as well as The Star’s Brisbane and Gold Coast properties.

A message between Foster and Cooke that alluded to getting “ready for war” and “fireworks” ahead of a February meeting between Weeks and the NICC that included lawyers from Maddocks and Corrs Chambers Westgarth, was also downplayed by Foster.

While the attendance of “litigators” at the meeting had again raised the “heat of the moment”, Foster said that he had “moved on” from this perceived conflict.

While he described the text messages as “appropriate in the context of a private conversation with one person” adding that most people would have had that experience, “on reflection it was the wrong thing to do”.

After being probed about suggestions that shareholders could launch a class action against the NICC and Weeks, Foster could not recall who had put forward the idea other than to say it had come from a number of engagements and feedback from major investors.

“There was frustration and concern about the funds they had invested in the company and more broadly how to protect those,” Foster told the inquiry.

But he added that he “certainly didn’t anticipate it would be a viable option”, agreeing with Conde’s suggestion that it was a “bizarre” proposal.

Foster noted that emotions among senior executives at The Star were running high after reports emerged in December that the casino regulator had given the company six months to get its house in order or be faced with the closure of The Star Sydney.

Cooke in the special counsel's crosshairs again

However, Conde’s questioning later in today’s session took specific aim at Cooke and his role in managing The Star’s remediation program.

Conde made several points about the aftermath of the NICC informing the board on 7 December last year that it had lost confidence in Cooke, and he was especially focused on the preparedness of the board to find a replacement for Cooke on short notice.

While Foster said he had informed Cooke that he no longer had the confidence of the NICC, he did not relay discussions about finding a replacement or that the board had asked the NICC to suggest a replacement.

“It was a serious issue raised by the commission and we took it as such,” said Foster.

“We understood and recognised that it’s not the easiest roles for companies to source talent we were open to suggestions by the NICC.”

Foster denied that the board was actively looking for a replacement or that it considered a change in leadership to be imminent, but he conceded that Cooke did see the writing on the wall at that time.

“Mr Cooke considering it from his perspective … was willing to do what’s right for the company,” he said.

Cooke eventually announced his resignation as The Star’s CEO on 22 March, with the company retaining his services as a consultant for six months to ensure a smooth transition for Foster as executive chairman of the group.

However, the inquiry today revealed that Cooke’s consultancy agreement was terminated last week on 18 April following damaging revelations about his leadership style from several witnesses including former CFO Christina Katsibouba, former chief customer and product officer George Hughes and former chief legal officer Betty Ivanoff. 

Foster said the termination of the consultancy agreement was due to the agreement becoming “complex” due to the evidence presented before the inquiry.

Foster also confirmed that Cooke’s departure as CEO was led by a decision by The Star's board, despite an email sent by Cooke to the group’s staff claiming that it was his decision.

The inquiry continues.

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