Chinese billionaire allegedly made illegal political donation in Australia: Watchdog

Parliament House in Canberra. A Chinese billionaire has been found to have allegedly made a secret political donation in 2015. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - A Chinese billionaire who sits on Hong Kong's election committee has been found by an Australian corruption investigation to have allegedly made a secret and illegal US$100,000 (S$136,000) political donation in the lead-up to a New South Wales state election.

Property developer Huang Xiangmo allegedly delivered the money in a plastic shopping bag to the general secretary of the New South Wales (NSW) Labor party in April 2015, four days after the same amount was withdrawn from his Sydney casino junket account, a report by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said on Monday (Feb 28).

The ICAC has sought advice from the public prosecutor on alleged offences by 18 people involved in a corrupt scheme to hide the donation, centred on a fund-raising dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Sydney where Mr Huang sat with state and federal opposition Labor leaders.

ICAC said a Huang employee withdrew the US$100,000 from his casino account several weeks after the dinner and a few days later Mr Huang allegedly delivered it to the Labor party official.

"Mr Huang was the true source of the (US$100,000) cash," ICAC said.

Mr Huang's lawyer, Mr Timothy Unsworth, said in evidence to ICAC that it was a coincidence that US$100,000 was withdrawn from Mr Huang's casino account days before Mr Huang met the NSW Labor boss. He also said that Mr Huang did not take the cash to the Labor meeting.

Mr Unsworth declined to comment to Reuters on the ICAC report.

The NSW Labor boss, who later went to work for Mr Huang, told ICAC he met with Mr Huang to discuss setting up a meeting with the federal Labor leader, but denied a bag of cash was handed over.

Political donations in NSW are capped at A$5,000 (S$4,890) and property developers are prohibited as donors.

The ICAC report found the US$100,000 donation was corruptly hidden under the names of a dozen fake donors. One fake donor took his own life on the eve of being questioned by ICAC, the report said.

Mr Huang's company, Yuhu Group, has previously made large legal donations to both sides of politics in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recently sought to run a scare campaign about Labor and Chinese political interference just months out from a federal election due in May, prompting a rare statement from Australia's spy boss that he holds no concerns about Labor's candidates.

Visa cancelled on security grounds

In 2019, as the ICAC conducted its investigation, Mr Huang's Australian visa was cancelled on security grounds and he was prevented from returning to his Sydney home.

Mr Huang, whose legal name is Huang Changran, is a resident of Hong Kong, where he is a member of the election committee, an elite group of 1,500 people that select the city's Chief Executive and nearly half of its legislature.

The body was enlarged from 1,200 to 1,500 members last year as part of an electoral overhaul to ensure only "patriots administer Hong Kong", documents from the city's electoral affairs commission show.

Mr Huang lives in a luxury, three-storey semi-detached mansion overlooking the sea on the south side of Hong Kong island.

Corporate records show he is still active in business with a string of Hong Kong companies, including corporate filings from February this year.

Australia's High Court in December ruled the Australian tax office could seek to freeze Mr Huang's worldwide assets, as it sought to recover A$140 million they claim he owes.

A federal Labor senator, Mr Sam Dastyari, was forced to resign in 2017 after warning Mr Huang that Australian intelligence agencies were monitoring his phone calls.

Mr Dastyari told the ICAC inquiry that in hindsight, he had "serious questions about whether or not Huang was, either directly or indirectly, an agent of influence for the Chinese government".

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) referred to Mr Huang's role as president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, a United Front group, when recommending the Australian government cancel his permanent resident visa.

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