Echo calls on Packer over 'secret' deal

Echo Entertainment chairman John O'Neill has called on James Packer and Mark Arbib to give their account of a secret meeting on board Mr Packer's boat in March, in which the casino magnate is alleged to have said he would keep his Crown Casino empire out of Brisbane if Echo agreed to let him into the Sydney market.

Echo Entertainment chairman John O'Neill has called on James Packer and Mark Arbib to give their account of a secret meeting on board Mr Packer's boat in March, in which the casino magnate is alleged to have said he would keep his Crown Casino empire out of Brisbane if Echo agreed to let him into the Sydney market.

Mr O'Neill stood by his claims, published last week, that Mr Packer said Crown would stay out of Queensland if Star Casino owner Echo "behaved" itself "vis-a-vis Sydney", allegations that are now under investigation by the competition regulator, Fairfax Media revealed on Saturday.

Mr O'Neill said his version of events was corroborated by Echo chief executive John Redmond, who attended the meeting on board the boat on Sydney Harbour along with Mr O'Neill, Mr Packer - executive chairman of Crown - and Mr Arbib, a former federal government minister who is now acting as an adviser to Mr Packer.

In response to questions from Fairfax Media, Mr O'Neill said: "I've nothing to add to my comments reported in the [Australian Financial Review] which were corroborated at the time by Echo CEO John Redmond, and the record stands for anyone who inquires.

"Anything else is up to our luncheon host Mr Packer and Mr Arbib."

Crown disputes Mr O'Neill's account of the meeting. "Echo's version of events are false and untrue," Mr Arbib said on Tuesday.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has confirmed that it would investigate potential breaches of competition law following Mr O'Neill's account of the meeting, which was published in The Australian Financial Review on Thursday.

"We would always look into such serious competition law issues as those raised by some of the statements in that article," an ACCC spokesman said on Friday.

Mr Packer's proposal to build a luxury hotel and casino at Barangaroo received the backing of the NSW state government this month, ahead of Echo's rival plan to expand the Star, currently Sydney's only casino.

According to Mr O'Neill, Mr Packer said Crown would not push forward with a casino in Brisbane - where Echo already operates a casino and is hoping to expand - if the owners of The Star did not hinder Mr Packer's plans for Barangaroo. "James Packer categorically said that if we behaved ourselves vis-a-vis Sydney, he would stay out of Queensland," Mr O'Neill told the AFR.

"The chairman of Crown said that he was 110 per cent confident of winning Crown Sydney at Barangaroo."

At the time of the meeting, Mr Packer had a 10 per cent stake in Echo, which he sold in May.

Bid rigging, when rivals agree not to genuinely compete for tenders, and market sharing, when rivals agree to divide customers or areas between themselves rather than compete, are banned under competition law. Both actions are considered cartel conduct, and could be subject to criminal penalties, including up to 10 years in jail.

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