Anyone within a few kilometres of Sydney's centre cannot help but notice the Crown Sydney casino.
The city's tallest building, which dominates the skyline like no other, is the realisation of billionaire James Packer's long-held dream to build a flagship gambling house on the shores of Sydney harbour.
But the building – which locals have dubbed "Packer's Pecker" – is at risk of becoming a A$2.9 billion white elephant, which won't return its cost.
Crown Resorts, which is developing the casino, is currently in the midst of a NSW government inquiry into whether it should be allowed to keep its casino licence for the site.
At issue are its illegal operations in China to recruit high rollers and the use of its Melbourne casino by notorious Asian crime gang the Triads to launder the proceeds of crime money, with allegations the company's top executives turned a blind eye to the criminal activity.
The stakes are very high.
The inquiry could find that Crown Resorts isn't a fit and proper company to hold a casino licence in NSW. In such circumstances, the company would presumably have to sell the site to another casino operator approved by the NSW government.
Even if Crown Resorts is allowed to hold on to its NSW casino licence when the inquiry hands down its report in February, the inquiry could recommend severely curtailing its operations.
Crown's growth over recent years has been powered by its international VIP business, essentially by attracting big gamblers from Asia. These "whales" can turn over tens of millions of dollars in a single visit to Crown's Melbourne and Perth casinos.
The company made a lot of money by partnering with "junket operators" – people who persuade high rollers to gamble at Crown's casinos and organise their travel and accommodation.
The problem is that gambling and promoting gambling is illegal in China, as is taking large amounts of cash out of the country. The junket operators got around this by lending customers money to gamble with and then collecting the debt once they returned to China, taking a commission along with way.
Not only was this illegal, it also turned out that some junket operators had links to organised crime and were helping their clients launder money – transforming the proceeds of crime into lucky casino winnings that could then be put into the financial system and used to buy houses, boats or shares. Crown staff once found A$5.6 million stashed away in the cupboard of a private gaming room run by a junket operator at its Melbourne casino.
After a crackdown on the junket operators – 19 Crown staff members were arrested in China in 2016 – attracting high rollers is now a lot more difficult.
That's a disaster for Crown Sydney, whose entire strategy is based on catering solely to high rollers. In fact, the new casino's licence doesn't include slot machines or pokies, the mainstay of many pubs and returned services league clubs in Sydney.
Then there's the issue of how much control James Packer has been exerting over the company. Despite no longer being a company executive or a director, and now owning only about 36 per cent of the company after selling down
half his holdings, Packer continued to act as if it was his own private business.
Packer gave up on his hometown of Sydney long ago and now divides his time between his isolated ranch in Argentina and his lodge in the ski fields of Aspen. He gave evidence to the inquiry via videolink from his superyacht, somewhere in the South Pacific.
The inquiry learned that Ken Barton, now CEO, was sending almost daily earnings updates to Packer and detailed earnings forecasts when he demanded them. This is a huge governance failing, because the information wasn't available to other Crown shareholders or potential investors, potentially putting Packer at an advantage when making decisions about when to sell or hold his shares.
Executives from Packer's private company Consolidated Press Holdings were embedded in Crown, advising on key strategic matters.
And Packer himself wasn't averse to contacting executives to tell them how to do their jobs. For instance, he suggested then executive chairman John Alexander's world trip was "looking at restaurants", and suggested placing travel bans on executives.
The reclusive billionaire admitted to the inquiry that he had exerted too much control.
He accepted he was a "driving force" behind the casino giant's strategy to partner with "junket" tour operators to bring high-rollers to its Melbourne and Perth casinos and acknowledged that he might be forced to sell down his stake if Crown is to keep its Sydney casino licence.
That might not be enough.
Crown may not be granted the licence, leaving the company stuck with a hugely costly building project and little prospect of a buyer in the midst of a global pandemic.
Either way, Packer may not see his dream become a reality.