Thursday, October 29, 2020

Australian officials who helped Chinese high rollers obtain visas face probe over money-laundering claims


Australia’s government said Tuesday it would investigate relations between consular officials and the country’s main casino operator, Crown Resorts, after media reports alleged that organized-crime gangs from China were laundering money through its casinos in Melbourne and Perth.

In recent days, articles in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age newspapers asserted that Crown, which is part-owned by tycoon James Packer, the ex-fiance of singer Mariah Carey, obtained assistance from Australian consular staff to facilitate the travel to Australia of people under investigation or being monitored by police and intelligence agencies.

The reports also said that a cousin of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Ming Chai, holds an Australian passport and was aboard a private jet that was searched by Australian agents in 2016 on suspicion the aircraft was involved in money laundering.

Ming, a former police official who has not responded to the reports, was a valued client of Crown known as a VVIP, or Very, Very Important Person, according to confidential Crown documents cited by the newspapers.

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The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify the reports, and Ming could not be reached for comment.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Christian Porter referred the allegations to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, a body that investigates corruption in federal law enforcement agencies, including the border-control force.

“It’s my view that there are sufficient concerns to warrant further investigations,” Porter told Parliament.

A former head of the Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, told the papers in an article published Sunday that two senior government officials had lobbied him to make it easier for wealthy Chinese gamblers to enter Australia on private jets.

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Read MoreAustralian media accuses Crown Resorts of being used by triads for money laundering

Crown said Tuesday it would assist with any investigation but rejected allegations of illegality.

“We believe these allegations are ill-informed and an attempt to smear the company,” it said in a statement.

The Department of Home Affairs, which oversees the Border Force, said it offers fast-track visa processing for “a number of large international organizations.”

The allegations are proving explosive in Australia, which is grappling with an influx of wealth from mainland China that has driven up property values, generated lucrative tax revenue and raised questions about the source of the financial windfalls.

Packer, who stepped down from the board of Crown in 2018, citing mental illness, is one of the country’s most famous business executives.

Read MoreUK crown dependencies to reveal company ownership amid tax haven crackdown

Two months ago, he sold 19.9 percent of Crown, leaving him with about 26 percent of the company, which reported profits of 559 million Australian dollars — about $380 million — in the year ended that June 30, 2018. Members of Crown’s high-stakes “VIP program” wagered 52 billion Australian dollars — about $36 billion — in the same period, according to corporate filings.

Packer’s lawyer has said that Packer has not held an executive position at the company since 2012 and had a passive interest in the company.

The Law Enforcement Integrity inquiry is likely to focus on whether federal officials did anything wrong in their relations with Crown. The casino operator is primarily regulated by state authorities, which have said they are monitoring the situation but have not taken any specific action.

From 2003 to 2016, Crown had an arrangement with the government to expedite the issuance of short-term visas for gamblers. Why the arrangement ended is unclear.

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An independent, anti-gambling lawmaker, Andrew Wilkie, had unsuccessfully sought a broader inquiry into the company by a parliamentary committee.

“There is clearly a need for everyone in this place to understand we have a multi-jurisdictional issue, and Crown Casino is at the center of it,” Wilkie told Parliament on Tuesday.


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