Bipolar Australian billionaire faces ruin over tangled Hollywood love life, links to organized crime and threats to rivals
James ‘Whacker’ Packer, a super-rich Australian casino owner with a dodgy track record in business and women, has been forced to admit that his behavior has been ‘disgraceful and shameful.’
The billionaire, son of legendary media mogul Kerry Packer, has had a rough trot lately. He has become embroiled in a Hollywood #MeToo scandal and, in Sydney, his global casino empire may be on the verge of ruin.
Packer inherited his father’s media empire (newspapers, magazines and the Channel 9 television stations in Australia) when Kerry died in 2005. Kerry Packer is perhaps best known internationally for establishing World Series Cricket in the late 1970s, which revolutionized the sport worldwide.
Since 2005 James Packer has divested himself of Kerry’s media assets, and invested heavily in casinos and gaming in Australia, England, America and Macau.
Before his father Kerry died, James lost millions of dollars in a failed telco enterprise in partnership with Lachlan Murdoch, the son of Rupert Murdoch, Australia’s other famous media baron.
In 2009, he lost hundreds of millions of dollars in failed casino investments in America. More recently, he was caught up in the bribery scandal that engulfed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Packer has never had any trouble generating publicity. He has been involved in a string of romances (and two failed marriages) with high-profile models and actresses, and more recently engaged in an ill-fated affair with American singer Mariah Carey, which resulted in him paying her a $8-million “inconvenience fee” when they broke up.
For a time, the 6’ 6” tycoon was a close friend of actor Tom Cruise and a devotee of the Church of Scientology, and in 2014 he was involved in a public punch-up over the model Miranda Kerr with Channel 9 CEO David Gyngell at Bondi Beach in Sydney, for which he was fined $500 for offensive behavior. Australian tabloid headlines at the time included “Billion Dollar Biffo!”, “James Whacker” and “Packer Whacker.”
These incidents, however, pale into insignificance when compared to what has happened to him recently.
Last week, he was named as a bit player in the latest salacious #MeToo scandal to hit Hollywood.
At the center of this sordid saga is Charlotte Kirk, a little known British actress with Asperger’s syndrome, with whom Packer had a brief affair in 2012. Packer then introduced her to his good friend, Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara, with whom she also had an affair. At the same time, Charlotte Kirk was having a fling with NBC Universal CEO, Ron Meyer.
Notwithstanding these multiple liaisons, Kirk’s movie career failed to take off in America, and she subsequently made allegations of sexual harassment against both Tsujihara and Meyer. These claims were settled on a confidential basis.
When details of his affair with Charlotte Kirk became public last year, Tsujihara was forced to resign from Warner Bros. At the time, Packer said of Kirk (in something of an understatement): “We had a brief relationship and I tried to help her career.”
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In August this year, details of Kirk’s affair and settlement with Meyer became public, and he was compelled to resign as Vice-Chairman of NBC Universal.
Meanwhile, Kirk has brought a multi-million dollar claim for compensation against Packer, Tsujihara, Packer’s Hollywood business partner Brett Ratner and another film producer, the details of which were only made public in Los Angeles last week.
Packer and Ratner’s lawyer responded by saying: “My clients are victims of a multi-million dollar civil extortion plot perpetrated by Charlotte Kirk … we look forward to putting an end to this menacing shakedown plot once and for all.” The FBI has now commenced an investigation into the Kirk affair.
There is no suggestion that Packer behaved improperly in the Kirk debacle, but it raises very serious questions again about his lack of judgment.
Even radical #MeToo advocates have steered clear of Charlotte Kirk, and one suspects that Packer is no longer on Tsujihara’s, Ratner’s or Meyer’s Christmas card lists.
More troubling for Packer is the scandal that has engulfed casino operator Crown Resorts over the past two weeks in Sydney.
Packer is a former chairman of Crown and his private company, CPH, owns a 36 percent stake in the public company, which has a market capitalization of $8 billion. A number of CPH executives are also Crown directors.
Earlier this year, the New South Wales government commissioned an inquiry into Crown’s fitness to hold a casino license for a controversial new VIP casino, due to open shortly on the shores of Sydney harbour.
The inquiry has been sitting for some time, and the evidence over the past few weeks has raised serious concerns about the way Crown and Packer operate.
The evidence has disclosed serious deficiencies in Crown’s risk management and governance policies, and Packer’s executives have admitted that this is so.
At the heart of these failures is Packer’s decision in 2019 to sell 20 percent of his stake in Crown to Melco, a Macau company (run by a close friend of Packer’s) that allegedly had links to organised crime. Packer personally insisted on the sale, despite opposition from his own executives.
The inquiry has also focused on the arrest and jailing of a number of Crown employees in China in 2016 for breaching Chinese laws prohibiting the promoting of gambling.
When the executive director of Crown lamely told the inquiry last week that Crown and Packer were committed to “doing better,” the retired judge heading the inquiry replied, “To say that the company is on a ‘journey of improvement’ is heartening to some, but I don’t know what it means.”
Things got worse when Packer himself gave evidence to the inquiry this week, via video-link from his $200-million super yacht moored at an undisclosed location in the Pacific Ocean.
Under questioning by counsel assisting the inquiry, Packer admitted that he had threatened an American businessman during negotiations about taking Crown private in 2015.
Packer accepted that his threat was “shameful and disgraceful,” but sought to excuse it on the basis that he was suffering from bipolar disorder and heavily medicated when he’d made the threat.
Counsel assisting the inquiry pointedly asked Packer, “How can the New South Wales regulator have any confidence in your character or integrity in light of your conduct?”
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Packer also admitted that Crown had breached Chinese laws, and that this was a serious compliance failure, but sought to evade responsibility for this fiasco by blaming two of his senior executives, who, he said, “had let the side down.”
As for the 2019 sale to Melco, Packer admitted that he knew that casino regulators were opposed to Melco obtaining an interest in Crown because they believed that Melco had links to organized crime. At the time of the sale, however, Packer said that he had forgotten this and “left it to my legal team.”
Packer was also questioned about his relationship with an Israeli billionaire with connections to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to Mossad, Israel’s secret service organisation.
The inquiry will ultimately have to decide whether Packer, CPH or Crown are fit and proper persons to hold a casino licence in Sydney. After Packer’s evidence this week, it seems clear that he may not be.
If the inquiry makes a finding to that effect, it would have grave consequences for Crown and Packer’s global casino empire. A worst-case scenario could see Packer having to divest himself of some, or all, of his casino interests.
Unfortunately, Packer’s judgment in relation to business issues appears to be little better than his judgment when it comes to personal matters.
We may now be witnessing the initial stages of the collapse of one of Australia’s largest and most famous business empires.
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