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Published on Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Seedy Christchurch casino industry exposed

A report in The Press in New Zealand today says that two top Christchurch Casino executives who have quit in the past month have turned on their former employer, revealing the seedy underbelly of the industry.

The report says that former acting chief executive Steve Lyttelton and his deputy, Peter Arbuckle, say they resigned about three weeks ago after the casino's board shrugged off concerns about security, prize-draw fixing, financial irregularities and loan sharking.

The executives, who have both worked at the casino since it opened in 1994, claim their concerns were not taken seriously by casino board chairman Barry Thomas and fellow board member and SkyCity chief executive Evan Davies.

Davies resigned from SkyCity on Monday after SkyCity's board decided it was time for a leadership change and collected a $1.7 million severance package.

The Department of Internal Affairs is reviewing the operation of the casino after several disclosures in The Press over recent weeks.

Last week, the Green Party called for a public inquiry into loan sharking after The Press exposed two loan sharks conducting significant operations at the casino.

Arbuckle and Lyttelton have gone public today in a letter addressed to the Christchurch public with further concerns that give a rare insight into some of the seedier goings-on at the casino and raise questions about the strength of government monitoring of the industry.

Lyttelton said he took his concerns to the board on May 31 and offered to substantiate each in writing with supporting evidence.  He claims his concerns were met with complete disinterest.  "I offered to supply detailed written information to them. However, I met a wall of silence, of blankness."

After the meeting he had "searched his conscience" and resigned on June 5.

"The Christchurch Casino and the New Zealand casino industry is in a sick and sorry state," Lyttelton said.

"I ask the people of Christchurch to rise up and demand of our political leaders a full and comprehensive inquiry into the state of New Zealand's casino industry.”  “This is an issue of the utmost public interest and should be dealt with with immediacy and without delay, for all our sakes."

Thomas, who is on holiday in Honolulu, said the board had listened to Lyttelton's concerns but the written report had never eventuated.

Lyttelton and Arbuckle have left Christchurch for Auckland.

Arbuckle said he resigned after an incident in the casino in April during which Christchurch sex industry kingpin Terry Brown was expelled from the casino's VIP club with his Melbourne friend, Mark Erickson, after complaints from other clients. Their presence was felt to be intimidating.

Next day, he received what he considered to be veiled threats of reprisals from people who said they were acting for Brown, Arbuckle said.

"I took my concerns about safety to the casino board, who offered no help," he said.  "I refuse to work in a casino industry that cannot protect its people or their families from such elements."  Arbuckle claims to be in fear for his life.  "This horrible ordeal has left a permanent scar on my family and sadness in our heart for the future of a clean, transparent casino industry for New Zealand," Arbuckle said.

Dunedin private detective Wayne Idour said he had called Arbuckle on Brown's request to see if the situation over the expulsion could be sorted out.

No threat or anything that could be construed as a threat had been made, he said. Brown could not be reached.

Arbuckle also accused Thomas of interfering in day-to-day decisions at the casino and harassing staff with drunken behaviour.

He claims Thomas had been warned in writing about five years ago about his intoxicated appearances at the casino by then chief executive Arthur Pitcher.

The incidents were serious enough to warrant a further letter from then shareholder Aspinall in London.

Thomas admitted he might have "had a bit too much" on some visits to the casino but his behaviour had never fallen below an acceptable standard. No incidents had occurred in the last five years, he said.

Thomas said he did not know Arbuckle well but he was staggered by the accusations coming from Lyttelton, who had always been well paid and well treated by the casino.

"He was a trusted friend of mine."  "I wonder why he is making these stupid accusations."

Arbuckle took a personal grievance against the casino in 2003-04 after Thomas tried to have him sacked over an incident involving drunken casino staff. They settled out of court.

Recounting another sordid incident, Lyttelton said he had also been required to write to Invercargill businessman Louis Crimp, who owns 8% of the casino, over an occasion which occurred in a toilet in the casino's VIP club in 2005. Crimp had been heard in a cubicle with a woman making noises which disturbed other guests.

He had written to Crimp saying he was no longer welcome in the premier gaming room.  In his reply, Crimp had explained he had been helping a young woman who was having an asthma attack. They were fully clothed at all times, he said.

Although he had initially been barred as a result of that incident he had been allowed back to the casino by Lyttelton.

Report by The Press NZ

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