The video poker (pokies) operations of Australian retail giant Woolworths have been penalized by New South Wales regulators for plying customers with free booze in a bid to keep them gambling.
On Thursday, the New South Wales Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority (ILGA) announced a AU$172,692 (US$118,600) penalty against Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group (ALHG), which is majority owned by Woolworths, for plying pokies players with complimentary alcohol at two of its NSW hotels.
The ILGA received a complaint against ALHG in June 2019 alleging that the Woolworths-owned Westower Tavern and South Tweed Tavern were violating NSW laws regarding “the supply of free or discounted liquor as an inducement to gaming machine players.” The suspect activity in question dates back to 2017.
The ILGA subsequently inspected 50 venues operated by ALHG, Australia’s third-largest pokies operator, leading to a formal investigation of four venues. The ILGA concluded that the Westower and South Tweed pubs were employing “tactics specifically designed to encourage gambling,” including offering free booze to “regular and high-bidding gamblers” to keep them seated at the machines.
ALHG’s efforts to counter these allegations were undone by internal emails as well as a response to the complaint filed by Andrew Wyeth, the pubs’ former manager, who told the ILGA that his ALHG supervisors told him ‘the more, the better’ in terms of how much free alcohol was offered to high-rollers.
Wyeth was personally fined AU$1,000 for his role in the kerfuffle, while Westower’s current manager Rachel Watts was fined AU$2,500 and Morgan Bensley, the venues’ state operations manager, was disqualified from performing that role for a period of five years. The two venues were also ordered to suspend their pokies activity for a two-week period starting August 7.
One year ago, Woolworths announced plans to spin off its pokies and liquor operations (including ALHG) into a standalone entity known as Endeavour Group. These plans were paused in March as COVID-19 forced the closure of all non-essential retail operations. The demerger is now expected to take effect sometime next year.