Counsel Assisting, Gail Furness (Or: Snow White)

“What a whitewash.” That is how The Sunday Telegraph (20/5/12) defined Ms Gail Furness’s (pictured below) report for the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority on Sydney’s only legal casino, The Star Casino, during its five-yearly licence review.

gailfurness

A “goose” is how the NSW Premier’s chief media man is alleged to have described Ms Furness (The Australian, 7/3/12), although the Premier himself defended her. The spin doctor has since lost his position.

Just a little background. Usually Ms Furness has acted as counsel assisting to several enquiries. She has now been appointed special counsel assisting the royal commission. The appointment was simply announced by the federal government. The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, chief commissioner Peter McClellan and Ms Furness herself have declined to discuss the appointment or to answer any media questions. The valid questions include whether or not applications were called for the position and what remuneration is involved. Again, the royal commission is not looking particularly transparent.

There has been considerable public controversy surrounding the Star Casino. Ms Furness’s new boss, the royal commission’s chief commissioner, Peter McClellan, is reported by The World Today (1/8/2000) as saying that, “A significant number of the major gamblers at Star City are either convicted criminals or are reasonably suspected of serious criminal activity.”

The Sydney Morning Herald published an article claiming the owners of the casino were warned in 2010 of an alleged culture of drug and alcohol abuse among senior management (The Sydney Morning Herald, 18/5/12). Ms Furness criticised the article in her report. Whistleblower, Star mid-level manager, Greg Culpan, was sacked from his position. Another manager, Elizabeth Ward, who was also sacked after the issue arose, said about Ms Furness, “I don’t believe her enquiry was an investigation at all” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 18/5/12).

The Sydney Morning Herald (17/2/12) reported that casino staff complained privately that Ms Furness’s report failed to get to the bottom of serious problems including the discovery of a white powder in a high roller’s bathroom.

The Sydney Morning Herald (23/12/11) reports that many suspected criminals that the NSW Police’s Asian Crime Squad are investigating are in the top 100 gamblers at The Star. Ms Furness found that there was no suggestion the casino was involved in any suspected criminal activity at its premises.

Less than two months after her report, Star sacked its general manager, Sid Vaikunta, a US citizen, for sexual harassment which he denies. As Claire Harvey of The Daily Telegraph reported (5/4/12), “So Furness was naturally a little cheesed off. Suddenly her detailed, careful report looked like a whitewash.” In the wake of this, many media reports appeared concerning sex, drugs, and crime at the casino, all of which Ms Furness criticised later under her statutory protection from defamation actions.

The public stoush between the NSW government and Echo Entertainment (licensees of the Star) erupted, including leaked emails between the Premier’s media man and his then girlfriend, a Star employee making sexual harassment claims against Mr Vaikunta. It all gets a little dirty, which is not surprising when two powerful organisations clash.

In an interview with The Australian (8/2/12), Ms Furness defended her report but admitted she had known nothing about the sexual harassment allegations against Mr Vaikunta. The long and short of it was that Ms Furness had to conduct a second enquiry. As the Daily Telegraph noted (20/5/12), “the truth is that Ms Furness missed the yarn.”

TOMORROW: The Star enquiry, mark II

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)

 

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