The former New South Wales MP Ernest Wong has been accused of lying to an anti-corruption investigation about whether he sold seats at Bill Shorten’s table to the Chinese billionaire and banned donor Huang Xiangmo for $100,000.
Wong, a state upper house member until earlier this year, helped organise a Chinese Friends of Labor fundraising dinner featuring Shorten, the then federal Labor leader, and other high-profile party figures shortly before the 2015 state election. That dinner is at the centre of an investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has already led to the suspension of the Labor’s NSW general secretary, Kaila Murnain.
The inquiry has heard allegations and evidence that Huang – a property developer and prolific political donor – gave $100,000 in cash to the partybut his contributions were masked by a series of straw, or fake, donors.
Wong was pressed on Friday about whether he sold the head table to Huang for $100,000. Huang was pictured on the night sitting with Shorten, the then NSW Labor leader, Luke Foley, Wong and other guests.
Icac’s counsel assisting, Scott Robertson, pushed Wong from the outset of his evidence about whether he had ever told anyone that he had sold the head table for $100,000. Robertson was forced to ask the same question at least six times and accused Wong of seeking to evade answering it.
“Have you ever said to anyone that the head table for the Chinese Friends of Labor dinner on the 12th March 2015 had been taken for $100,000?” Robertson asked.
Eventually Wong said he had not.
The hearing was then shown an email from Wong to a man named Joseph Law. Law had asked: “The table with Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen, how much is it?”
Wong had replied: “Sorry that the head table has already been taken for $100,000.”
Robertson then accused Wong of giving “false evidence” to Icac. “It was knowingly false because when you answered that question … you first sought to evade the question, and you then told a lie,” he said.
Wong responded: “No I didn’t tell a lie. I tried to search my memory.”
Later Wong was asked whether he had ever sold seats to the head table. Wong replied: “I did not sell seats on the head table.”
The hearing was then shown an email from Jonathan Yee, a senior figure in the Chinese Friends of Labor group, which set out revenue targets for the dinner.
In the email Yee said: “Head table at $10,000 per person (Ernest Wong is responsible for this table).”
Robertson then pressed Wong on whether he had sold the table to Huang for $100,000. Wong said he had not.
“You sold that table to Mr Huang Xiangmo, didn’t you?” Robertson asked. Wong replied that he had not.
Robertson continued to press Wong: “In exchange for Mr Huang Xiangmo agreeing to pay $100,000 in connection with the head table of the Chinese Friends of Labor dinner on 12th March 2015, he was permitted to sit at the head table with Mr Shorten, Mr Foley and you with four other guests?”
Wong said he had not.
“I want to suggest to you that that is false evidence that you’ve given to this commission, and in point of fact you … sold it to Mr Huang, and you sold it for a sum like $100,000?”
Wong denied the suggestion.
Evidence was then produced to Icac showing $12,200 raised at the 2015 dinner was moved to a bank account controlled by the Friends of Chinese Community Incorporated. Wong was the convener of the Friends of Chinese Community group, which he said helped organise events for the Chinese community. It is not formally associated with any political party.
Wong said he had obtained the consent of an official in the NSW Labor branch, Kenrick Cheah, to transfer the money to the private company. He said the money was to be used to help cover its expenses in organising lunar new year events and media costs.
Wong later conceded that the Labor official who had given him consent would not have had the authority to speak on behalf of Labor on the matter.
Earlier evidence to Icac suggested that in September 2016 a distressed Wong approached Murnain to say Huang had donated large sums of money to the Labor party and others had claimed to have donated when they had not.
Murnain said she had sought the advice of the federal Labor senator Sam Dastyari, who was then engulfed in his own scandal involving Huang and his company, Yuhu Group. That scandal had forced him from the Labor frontbench eight days earlier.
Dastyari is said to have told Murnain to approach Labor’s lawyers. Murnain said she was told to keep quiet about what she knew.