The blurry images, beamed in from the safety of his hermetically sealed superyacht moored somewhere in the South Pacific, revealed a controlled man, equal parts subdued and morose.
Puffy, but trimmed down from the bloated figure he once cut, it was a performance difficult to reconcile with that of a man born into unimaginable privilege and power.
For the past few years, James Packer has oscillated between an isolated ranch in Argentina and the ski fields of Aspen, doing his utmost to avoid the spotlight and human contact in general.
Last week, however, he had no choice. Summonsed to appear before a NSW inquiry into whether his company Crown Resorts is fit to hold a casino licence, Mr Packer’s highly publicised struggles with alcohol and depression and his tumultuous personal life alone guaranteed it would be a major media event.
But the astounding revelations and admissions extracted by former Supreme Court judge Patricia Bergin and her counsel assisting have been both breathtaking and potentially disastrous for the casino group.
Threats, abuse, mentions of Mossad agents, accusations of negligence in policing and reporting suspected money laundering, illegal or unlawful operations in China were all aired. And above it all loomed the spectre of the recently departed Stanley Ho, who NSW authorities had banned decades ago.
The NSW inquiry, which followed allegations of impropriety in a 60 Minutes story broadcast last year and an ABC Four Corners investigation in 2014, has also raised serious questions about the lack of oversight from Victorian and Western Australian gaming regulators, where Crown has operations.
Even before he began his three days of testimony, Mr Packer warned that his memory was not what it once was.
Strong medication and years of struggling with bipolar disorder — the first time a diagnosis has been made public — had blunted his senses.
While no doubt truthful, if it was hoped the admission would elicit sympathy from the Commissioner or her lieutenants, those hopes were soon dashed.
For despite stepping aside from management and board duties, Mr Packer remains the dominant figure at Crown.
The hearing heard that Mr Packer had a controlling shareholder agreement with Crown, was given special briefings and that those within the inner sanctum of his court were utterly loyal.
A director he may no longer be. But at Crown, Mr Packer reigns supreme.
The Stanley Ho connection
Casinos are a grubby business. By their nature, they prey on the weaknesses of individuals in a game of chance where the tables are deliberately tilted, they’ve acquired a reputation for connections with money laundering and organised crime.
Even casino groups are loath to incorporate the word in their paraphernalia. These days, they’re “integrated resorts”.
A third-generation media proprietor, Mr Packer in 1999 took the nation by surprise when his first big deal as chairman of Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd was to snap up the ailing Melbourne-based Crown. Having spent so much time watching his father Kerry come to grief in Las Vegas and London casinos, he apparently swore to be on the other side of the table.
In March 2006, Mr Packer teamed up with Lawrence Ho to build the first of several new casinos in Macau, the former Portuguese colony that had been returned to China in 1999. With casinos outlawed on the mainland, and an economy minting millionaires and billionaires by the day, it was a business opportunity too good to pass up.
There was just one problem. Lawrence was the son of Stanley Ho, the man who had enjoyed a 30-year monopoly in the Macau casino business until 1999, and who controlled Melco International, the company with which Mr Packer’s PBL was entering a joint venture.
Given gambling and casinos are outlawed on mainland China, Stanley’s Lisboa Casino and Hotel was hugely profitable. And it attracted China’s infamous organised crime groups, known as triads.
While he always rejected the allegations, he’d been banned in the 1980s from having any involvement in a proposed Sydney casino development and declared unfit to run American gaming operations in Nevada and more recently was delivered a scathing assessment in a 2007 New Jersey investigation.
It concluded: “Numerous governmental and regulatory agencies have referenced Stanley Ho’s associations with criminal enterprises, including permitting organised crime to operate and thrive within his casinos.”
Just weeks before Mr Packer inked the joint venture deal, Stanley Ho passed control of Melco International to his son Lawrence and Victorian gaming authorities gave Crown’s Macau joint venture a green light.
Except, Stanley didn’t make a complete exit.
A secret NSW Government banning list, released to the inquiry, shows the biggest shareholder in Melco happens to be a Virgin Islands trust called Great Respect and Stanley — personally banned by the NSW Government — was a beneficiary until his death just a few months ago.
None of this would ever have come to light, since James and Lawrence wound up their Macau joint venture three years ago.
But when James, looking for an exit from Crown, last year decided to sell out to Lawrence, through Melco, it became a live issue.
As it turns out, it is not just Stanley who was banned. Great Respect itself and several other Ho family beneficiaries, although not Lawrence, were also specifically banned by the NSW Government from any involvement in Crown’s soon-to-be completed Barangaroo development in Sydney.
Lawrence Ho has since pulled the plug on his plans to take control of Crown. But it’s left Crown and Mr Packer with a lot of questions to be answered. And so far, the answers haven’t been very convincing.
“I regarded Melco as Lawrence’s company.”
Crown’s Asian gambler imports — how it works
They call them junket operators. Or, in some parts of Asia, VIP operators. Essentially, these are travel agencies that pull together rich gamblers and fly them off to a foreign destination.
The flights, the bubbly, high-end Scotch, limos, ritzy accommodation, the lavish meals — it’s all free. Well, to a point.
As long you’re dropping vast wads of cash onto the tables, the largesse rolls on.
It’s all perfectly legal. Except that in Macau, the model evolved into a different beast under Stanley Ho. The junket operators, instead of surrendering the clients to the casino, were allowed to take charge of the clients in the casino and run their very own VIP rooms.
That opened the door to organised crime figures. While controls have tightened, many of the triad gangs that openly ran the junkets now operate just outside the casinos behind what the Nevada Gaming Authority describes as a “facade of legitimate public corporations and complex corporate structures.”
Crown engaged junket operators to bring Chinese high rollers to its Melbourne casino. Its entire strategy, when it successfully lobbied the O’Farrell government for a licence to build a Sydney casino, was for it to cater solely to Asian high rollers. Most would be from China.
Mr Packer, after proclaiming he was unaware of any unsavoury accusations against junket operators, under examination last week was forced to concede that an ABC Four Corners program four years ago named six operators with alleged links to organised crime delivering Chinese gamblers to Crown.
The inquiry heard that the biggest, Suncity, is run by Alvin Chau who Mr Packer met in 2015 and since has been banned from entering Australia.
On Friday, six years after Four Corners aired these concerns, Victorian gaming authorities launched action over Crown’s lax oversight of junket operators, asking it to show cause why disciplinary action should not be taken.
Crown’s $2.4 billion white elephant
There was always a question mark over just how Crown could make the Barangaroo casino work.
What good are Chinese high rollers if Beijing has banned citizens from taking more than $5,000 out of the country? Unless they are bringing out the cash via other channels.
Remember too, Barangaroo’s licence does not include pokies or slot machines. It is for high rollers only.
And then there were the arrests of 19 Crown staff in 2016 in China.
The Inquiry heard evidence that senior management had been warned staff were concerned for their safety as they feared they were breaking the law. Gambling was not permitted under local law. Nor was it legal to entice gamblers offshore.
Incredibly, Mr Packer wasn’t aware the company had “unofficial offices” in Guangzhou. Nor did chief executive John Alexander, who denied authorising the offices.
Faulty memories have become a feature of the hearings. Directors couldn’t quite recall whether Michael Johnston, Mr Packer’s Crown board representative, had absented himself from a vital meeting over a potential conflict of interest.
The company’s legal boss Joshua Preston was “unaware” Macau’s junket operators were poorly regulated.
And so the disaster rolled on.
It is clear Mr Packer wants out of Crown. But after his testimony last week, it may not be on his own terms.
An adverse finding by the NSW inquiry will have repercussions in Victoria and Western Australia.
Abdication may not be an option.