In tapped calls, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian heard about some of her secret ex-partner Daryl Maguire’s exploits for Chinese-Australian export agent Jimmy Liu.
An ABC investigation unravels how the former MP did favours for Mr Liu’s company, which allegedly swindled vast sums from Australians and became embroiled in a devastating international fraud.
On the same day he was feted in New South Wales Parliament as “the greatest Member for Wagga Wagga in the history of the state”, Daryl Maguire received a private warning from his secret partner, Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Mr Maguire, an enterprising parliamentary secretary and self-confessed “door opener”, was desperately in debt and his political career was about to collapse in scandal.
On May 3, 2018, just before Question Time, he called his girlfriend about an opportunity post politics with a long-term Chinese-Australian business associate, Jimmy Liu.
Anti-corruption investigators intercepted the call at 1:21pm.
“I’ll tell you tonight,” Mr Maguire told Ms Berejiklian. “Jimmy’s made me an offer.”
“Right, well, you stay away,” Ms Berejiklian responded. “Stay away please.”
That afternoon, the Premier watched as her Treasurer Dominic Perrotet lauded Mr Maguire, telling Parliament: “long may he reign in Wagga Wagga.”
But that 19-year reign would soon be cut short by a rolling corruption scandal that would eventually embroil her.
Ms Berejiklian’s long-term relationship with Mr Maguire was revealed to a stunned public late last year in an explosive Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry.
Over four weeks of hearings, the inquiry heard how the former Liberal Member for Wagga Wagga used his public office and parliamentary resources for financial gain.
The ICAC played a series of tapped calls in which he shared some details with Ms Berejiklian of his dealings as a fixer for a network of Chinese-born business figures, including Jimmy Liu.
She had not reported the conversations.
Ms Berejiklian told the inquiry she had “no recollection” of the May 2018 conversation, and did not respond to the ABC’s questions about why she told Mr Maguire to “stay away”.
Mr Maguire would have been well-advised to keep his distance.
The ABC can reveal the former MP used his parliamentary position to lend government legitimacy to Mr Liu’s company, United World Enterprises (UWE), while it was allegedly involved in a series of major frauds on Australian taxpayers and investors, and in China.
In one of those cases, the former MP staged a ceremony in NSW Parliament House for UWE and a Chinese aged-care company, which was later found to have defrauded more than 900 pensioners in China of at least $46 million.
The aged-care fraud has left many of the victims homeless and unable to afford life-saving healthcare in China. At least nine of them have died.
A group of Mr Liu’s business partners have been imprisoned in Shanghai over the investment scam.
Retirees who lost their life savings are now calling on Australian police to investigate the international fraud and track whether stolen funds were shifted here by conmen who won their trust by promoting Daryl Maguire’s apparent support for the project.
“This Australian MP, I want to say to him, because of your actions, so many people have lost their homes,” said Liu Jinghui, 68, who lost $800,000 to the scam.
“He caused Chinese people to believe this wholeheartedly and invest more money.”
The ABC has not seen evidence that Mr Maguire was aware of the aged-care fraud or alleged criminal business practices at UWE.
Mr Maguire and Ms Berejiklian declined to respond to the ABC’s questions.
She has repeatedly said she did “not have a clue” about UWE, despite a series of calls in which Mr Maguire told her he was helping Mr Liu and the company.
“If I understood that anything wrong was going to take place, of course I would have taken action, but can I make clear I had no idea what UWE meant,” she told the ICAC last year.
She was not told of the scam or of any unlawful activity by UWE or Mr Liu in the calls played at the ICAC public hearings.
Former counsel assisting the ICAC, Geoffrey Watson SC, is calling on the commission and Australian police to investigate the revelations.
“ICAC has to reopen the matter and ask some further questions of Mr Maguire and I also believe the Premier,” he told the ABC.
“We need to know how much at the top level of NSW politics was known.
“The relevant police authorities must [also] look immediately to see whether or not there’s been anything of a criminal nature here.”
Jimmy Liu and his right-hand man in government
The aged-care scam centred on one of Australia’s oldest cattle farms, Currabubula Station, about 40 minutes’ drive from Tamworth in regional NSW and more than 600 kilometres from Daryl Maguire’s electorate.
The $7.5 million property was a centrepiece of Jimmy Liu’s plan to get rich from the Chinese trade boom, with the help of his friend in the state government.
Mr Liu dreamed of transforming Currabubula Station’s grazing and cropping land into the jewel in an agriculture empire, spanning Australia and China.
He and his wife and business partner, Freda Feng, hosted Chinese businessmen at the ranch and spruiked ambitious investment schemes – from beef exports to solar farms, farming schools, and agritourism for the elderly.
Mr Liu and Ms Feng were export agents who pivoted from textiles and cosmetics in 2012 to exploit Chinese demand for Australian produce.
With headquarters in Sydney and Shanghai, their business became an early success story in the new market, peddling Australian commodities like beef, wheat, barley, sorghum and cottonseed at high margins to Chinese buyers.
UWE cashed in on the couple’s connections in the Chinese Communist Party and in Australia’s Liberal Party.
They won awards from then-premier Barry O’Farrell, a multi-million-dollar loan guarantee from the Commonwealth, and a valuable deal with a Chinese government-owned multinational.
But when grain trader Steven Foote started work as a general manager for Mr Liu in 2014, he saw chaos on the inside.
“My time at UWE was crazy,” he told the ABC.
“It was very exciting, very positive and very negative. A lot of lies, a lot of deceit, a lot of anger, a lot of turmoil.
“Not long after I started, I could see everything was on the back of a cocktail napkin.
“The outward perception of the business was strength, a lot of turnover and a lot of opportunity, but inwardly it was chaotic. It was very poorly run.”
Mr Foote eventually became so distressed by what he witnessed at the company that he quit and turned on Mr Liu, giving evidence to the ICAC about UWE’s dealings with Mr Maguire and blowing the whistle on the company.
According to Mr Foote, UWE ran a racket while regulators and governments turned a blind eye.
He said the company faked invoices, tax claims and financial records to solicit millions of dollars from taxpayers in GST and income tax fraud.
“They were essentially chefs,” Mr Foote said.
“They were cooking the books.”
He said UWE also ripped off investors and banks through a Ponzi scheme, entrancing them with claims of astronomical gains to pay large sums owed to earlier investors.
“UWE was bringing in money from multiple different investors who trusted the pitch and trusted the spreadsheets,” he said.
“When the investor would question why they weren’t receiving their money, Jimmy would bring in another investor.
“He created an enormous mountain of problems for himself.”
Mr Liu and Ms Feng did not respond to the allegations when contacted by the ABC.
According to Mr Foote, Mr Maguire helped UWE attract investors by presenting an image of government support and making introductions to his political and business contacts in Australia and China.
Mr Maguire ran a company, G8way International, which promised to sell influence and experience reaching to the highest levels of government.
Internal records obtained by ABC Investigations reveal G8way International was on UWE’s books as a supplier.
Mr Foote first met the MP at a UWE investor conference in Shanghai in 2014, when the MP was flown in by Mr Liu to act as an Australian government representative.
Mr Liu later told the ICAC inquiry he never paid Mr Maguire, other than the all-expenses-paid trip and a $1,400 cheque uncovered by the commission.
“Daryl’s value to UWE was epic,” said Mr Foote, who believed the MP did not know of the company’s alleged Ponzi scheme.
“He was key to Jimmy’s credibility, to his face, to his success.
“If Jimmy wasn’t able to demonstrate that he had a strong network here within the government, he would not have got the support out of China.”
Mr Maguire flaunted his political connections, boasting to investors and government colleagues that he had met Chinese President Xi Jinping.
He often showed off a photo of them shaking hands, taken during a 2014 visit to Australia by Mr Xi.
Curiously, Gladys Berejiklian was pictured behind the MP in the greeting order, despite her higher ranking at the time as a NSW government minister.
Over the next four years, Mr Maguire pushed UWE’s interests to the NSW government, the Liberal Party and local councils.
Mr Foote said he spoke with Mr Maguire “at least monthly”, sometimes more, regarding him as his boss’s “right-hand man within government” and an “enabler” for the company.
The MP became a regular fixture at UWE’s properties and at business dinners hosted by Jimmy Liu.
On his end, Mr Maguire hosted meetings and events at NSW Parliament House to help Mr Liu wheel and deal.
The ICAC heard the MP helped UWE secure a land deal in the Riverina. Mr Foote said Mr Maguire supported a crucial development application through council.
“I had several approaches from people throughout that time saying, ‘why is he involved? Why is he there?'” Mr Foote said.
“I had no idea other than he’s assisting the process … I was quite grateful to Daryl at the time for him to do that, but it was outside his electorate.”
‘Repeat after me: 1.5 million’
In 2017, Mr Maguire went to extraordinary lengths to use his access to government to champion UWE, with tragic repercussions in China.
The MP was in debt that year and hunting for a solution, with his career soon to be ruined by corruption revelations.
He owed his ex-wife a divorce settlement and was behind on his mortgage, as he told Gladys Berejiklian in tapped calls in September 2017.
MAGUIRE: I am poor, I’m telling you, 1.59 million poor.
MAGUIRE: Just repeat after me: 1.5 million.
BEREJIKLIAN: I’m not going to say any such thing.
Several of Jimmy Liu’s prized business partners at a Chinese government-owned food giant, Bright Food, had been stood aside or jailed for corruption. The new leadership of the company was pulling out of a joint venture with UWE.
“Jimmy’s financial position was desperate,” said Mr Foote, who discovered UWE was unable to pay millions of dollars owed to Australian agriculture companies for their products.
“It started to become quite a frightening proposition,” he said. “The debt with the trading business was as serious as you could get. It was trading insolvent.”
That year, Mr Liu found a potential lifeline with a friend in Shanghai who ran a Chinese aged-care start-up, Haiquan (pronounced ‘high-chan’).
Haiquan was raking in funds from Chinese pensioners with a novel aged-care investment scheme and a benevolent motto: “Take from society and give back to all humans”.
Haiquan and UWE came up with a plan to use Daryl Maguire’s position in Parliament to attract Chinese retirees to invest in a historic aged-care deal, centred on Mr Liu’s farm, Currabubula Station.
Haiquan convinced investors it was establishing an international aged-care facility on the ranch, where they could stay during China’s winter, access world-class Australian healthcare and enjoy Tamworth’s famous country music festival.
The Shanghai swindle
The first time 68-year-old former factory worker Liu Jinghui saw Daryl Maguire’s face was at a lavish investment gala in Shanghai, hosted by Haiquan Group in May 2017.
Ms Liu sat in an audience of retirees as photographs of Mr Maguire and Jimmy Liu were projected on a giant screen.
The images dwarfed Jimmy Liu’s friend, self-proclaimed Haiquan CEO, Jin Wei, who announced on stage that the aged-care company had signed a deal to go global, starting at Currabubula Station in Australia.
“We were all very excited,” Ms Liu told the ABC from Shanghai.
“They had promotional pictures of government cooperation.
“Haiquan has done so well that it has gone abroad and has been recognised by the government.”
Ms Liu was among at least 900 older Chinese convinced to invest in Haiquan, which exploited the country’s booming demand for aged care and scant supply.
Haiquan promised a package deal, including grand retirement villages across China, customised holiday resorts, and an investment opportunity with high returns.
Ms Liu had first learned about the company in a street flyer, inviting her to a nationwide talent contest where it spruiked to the middle-aged and elderly.
“The competition was very popular with the elderly,” she said. “Then they started telling us about beds.
“Many elderly people struggle to find a nursing-home bed, while Haiquan [said its service was] migratory, with beds available all over the country.
“It touched my heart.”
Haiquan boasted that nearly 150,000 people attended its travelling talent shows in eight regions across China, where it plugged the deal.
Once customers signed up, Haiquan convinced them to lend the company money, even though many had few assets or savings.
Under a loosely regulated and highly abused scheme in China, known as peer-to-peer lending, small investors loaned money directly to the company, cutting out the bank as a middleman to earn higher interest.
According to Ms Liu, Haiquan claimed the scheme was guaranteed by a Chinese government owned mega-corporation, China National Energy Group.
The head of a company with a similar name, Shanghai National Energy Group president Zhang Caigen, was often on hand at investor events.
Ms Liu believed the investment would ease the burden on her family.
Ms Liu lived alone in a house paid for by her daughter and received a meagre government pension.
“The money I put in at the beginning was not a lot, but it increased little by little,” she said.
Haiquan toured investors to functioning nursing homes which it claimed it owned.
Each month that Ms Liu received her government pension payment, Haiquan asked for more.
“The people at Haiquan knew exactly when we were going to get our pension and how much money we had left,” she said.
“They were watching us like wolves.”
The signing ceremony
Before Haiquan announced its Australian expansion, Jimmy Liu flew his friend Jin Wei and Shanghai National Energy Group’s Zhang Caigen, twice to Currabubula Station to strike their deal.
Even though he was sinking into millions of dollars in debt, Mr Liu poured money into renovating Currabubula, including a new gift shop, a Mahjong room and a karaoke room.
He spent more than $100,000 on vintage war vehicles for the property, including a Centurion tank from the Vietnam War that visitors could ride.
According to Steven Foote, Haiquan promised to invest in new holiday villas for the 6,000-acre property, and order monthly deliveries of Currabubula beef parcels for its investors in China.
Haiquan wanted the deal to have government support.
Jimmy Liu asked Daryl Maguire to arrange an official ceremony at Parliament House.
Coalition and state government figures were invited to the event in the Parkes Room on May 8, 2017.
Mr Maguire and Tamworth Nationals MP Kevin Anderson witnessed the signing, along with the state government’s Special Envoy to China, Jim Harrowell, who is now Mr Maguire’s lawyer at the ICAC.
Top Liberal Party fundraiser and co-chair of its Chinese Council, Benjamin Chow, also attended the ceremony. He had introduced Mr Maguire to Mr Liu four years earlier.
“Strangely at the end, there was a remarkable amount of relief and happiness from the Haiquan officials as though they’d achieved something,” Mr Foote said. “It was almost an over-reaction.”
Mr Liu and Freda Feng did not reply to the ABC’s questions, including whether they knew Haiquan was running a scam and if they or UWE received money from the company.
A spokesman for Mr Anderson said the MP complied with all parliamentary guidelines and necessary disclosures. There is no suggestion he knew of any impropriety by Haiquan or UWE.
Mr Harrowell said he had not heard of the allegations until contacted by the ABC and had “nothing to do at all” with UWE or Haiquan.
He said he “had no personal or professional dealings with [Mr Maguire] or any of the persons with whom he is alleged to have dealings” prior to the ICAC inquiry.
Mr Chow told the ABC he had no memory of the event.
Mr Maguire last year told the ICAC that Mr Liu approached him to join UWE’s board around July 2017, two months after the signing ceremony.
In China, Haiquan’s Jin Wei hyped up the MP’s role in the deal, which he described as a historic “bilateral pension strategy agreement” between Australia and China.
“Almost no company can sign a contract in the NSW Parliament building, representing the Australian government’s high regard for our project,” Mr Jin told investors.
Daryl Maguire’s apparent support for the project convinced Liu Jinghui to sell the home her daughter had bought her to raise more funds.
“Because the signing ceremony was in the Parliament and there were MPs involved, we were very happy… so many older people went all out to invest more money,” she told the ABC.
“Their [Haiquan’s] scam was perfect.”
In total, she loaned $800,000 to Haiquan Group. It was all the money she had.
The scam comes crashing down
In 2018, Ms Liu showed up to Haiquan’s Shanghai headquarters to find them empty.
Investors had not received interest payments from the company for months.
She and other investors, like 84-year-old Tang Longhai, discovered the aged care centres where Haiquan had taken them on tour were not even owned by the company.
“They were pretending that they owned these nursing homes but they were all owned by other people,” Mr Tang said.
“They were just lying to us … They’ve hurt a lot of people.”
Later that year, the first of at least 16 Haiquan staff and executives were arrested and charged over the fraud, as part of a national crackdown on peer-to-peer lending schemes.
The group was convicted last year of defrauding more than 900 investors of at least 220 million yuan, the equivalent of $46 million, according to Chinese court documents obtained by the ABC.
Victims believe the true figure is up to three times higher.
Several of Haiquan’s victims have died since the scam was discovered, some of them with no money to pay for healthcare.
Mr Tang lost his son, a father of one, to cancer after running out of money to pay for his treatment.
He and his wife were too ashamed to tell him or their family why they could no longer lend him money. Their son’s death sent Mr Tang’s wife into deep depression.
“My wife was in poor health and the death of her son was a great shock to her, so she died last September,” he said.
“What happened to me was really sad. My son and wife died because of this.”
A grim hand-written list kept by victims names eight others who have died.
Xu Laibo, 69, and Chen Xuelian, 81, whose families couldn’t afford their heart stents and then their tombs.
An 85-year-old woman who descended into mental illness, unable to care for her wheelchair-bound son.
A 72-year-old man, Li Yunze, who died penniless last year from a non-cancerous tumour he had managed for a decade, leaving his widow Cao Jianfei with nowhere to live.
Ms Cao told the ABC her husband was convinced to invest in Haiquan because of the company’s claims about Daryl Maguire’s involvement, and died “full of guilt”.
Ms Liu also stopped talking to her family, too ashamed to reveal she had sold the house her daughter bought for her.
“After what happened, many of the victims want to commit suicide,” she said.
“I’m a very strong person but I also have this idea of suicide. I wake up at 3am feeling like I can’t go on living anymore.”
Ms Liu has become an organiser and source of support for the victims, fighting for justice for four years and leading protests outside court in Shanghai.
She spoke with the ABC to demand a police investigation in Australia, despite intense pressure from Chinese authorities to stay silent.
The two Chinese front men for the scam who arranged the UWE deal, Jin Wei and Zhang Caigen, have not been brought to justice.
Mr Jin and Mr Zhang tried to keep the business opportunity alive in Australia, even as Haiquan was falling apart.
Jimmy Liu arranged meetings for them with Tamworth Council in Australia in 2018 and in China in 2017.
Tamworth mayor Col Murray told the ABC he did not know Haiquan was running a scam, and the council had no further interactions with the company.
Mr Liu also showed up on Chinese TV with the conmen, striking an agriculture deal with Chinese Communist Party officials.
While helping his friends at Haiquan in 2018, Mr Liu received multi-million-dollar loans to fund Currabubula Station from business associates in Australia.
The mysterious millions
Haiquan’s victims want Australian authorities to investigate whether Haiquan funnelled any of the proceeds of its investment scam here, with most of the stolen money still missing.
“We suspect they took the money to Australia,” Mr Tang said.
“They should bring back the money and give it back to these people who were ripped off.
“They all ran away.”
According to an internal ledger seen by ABC Investigations, UWE received more than $11 million in unexplained transfers from April 2017, the month before the Haiquan signing ceremony, until October 2018.
Steven Foote said his bosses told him in 2018 the company was receiving millions of dollars from China, even though most of its exports and sales had stopped.
“I have no idea where the money came from because we were insolvent, we had no ability to pay [the creditors],” said Mr Foote, who had not seen the UWE ledger until it was provided by the ABC.
UWE also received loans during that period from Chinese-Australian businessmen and companies.
The business associates were connected to billionaire property developer Huang Xiangmo, who was banned from Australia over foreign interference concerns and was at the centre of a separate ICAC inquiry.
Premier: ‘I have never been accused of any wrongdoing’
Premier Gladys Berejiklian declined to answer questions from the ABC about what she knew about UWE, Haiquan and their signing ceremony.
As recently as last March, she told a parliamentary committee she did “not have a clue about” UWE, even though the ICAC had recorded at least seven conversations in nine months in which Mr Maguire had spoken about Jimmy Liu or the company.
The Opposition accused the Premier of breaching a legal obligation to the ICAC by failing to disclose those conversations.
“I have never been accused of any wrongdoing,” she said at the parliamentary hearing. “There are no allegations against me.”
In her calls with Mr Maguire in 2017 and 2018, she heard some details of how he used his parliamentary role to save UWE from financial ruin right until the end of his political career.
They did not discuss Haiquan or the signing ceremony in the calls played at the ICAC.
But several of their conversations focused on Mr Maguire’s plans to stop the collapse of a deal between UWE and Chinese-government owned food giant, Bright Food.
In August and September 2017, they discussed his plans to gatecrash a delegation by the NSW Trade Minister to China so he could meet with Bright Food.
The Premier was separately briefed by her then-chief of staff on Mr Maguire’s threat to intervene, which the Minister’s office feared would spark a diplomatic incident.
She then privately disclosed to Mr Maguire that her chief of staff would be calling him to say the Minister had “promised to fix it for him”.
“They seem to think it’s [the UWE operation is] in your electorate,” Ms Berejiklian told Mr Maguire. “I didn’t say anything, I just said ‘let me know how it goes.'”
The conversations were among many between the former couple that were played at the ICAC, revealing Mr Maguire told her about attempts to secure deals for his business network.
In July 2018, more than two months after she warned Mr Maguire to “stay away”, he resigned from the Liberal Party after a separate ICAC inquiry into Sydney’s Canterbury Council exposed his attempts to seek payment to help broker property deals.
The revelations sparked the current ICAC investigation into Mr Maguire, Operation Keppel, which is continuing.
In Parliament, Ms Berejiklian called on all MPs who “see or hear anything that is of concern, which they feel ICAC should investigate, [to] refer it on the spot”.
She did not report her relationship and conversations with Mr Maguire.
Days after his resignation, Ms Berejiklian was briefed by her department that two ministerial staffers were making disclosures to the ICAC about potential misconduct involving Mr Maguire.
She was not informed about the substance of the disclosures, one of which was about the concerns within the Trade Minister's office about Mr Maguire's lobbying for UWE.
The former counsel assisting the ICAC, Geoffrey Watson SC, says the commission should call the Premier back to ask her to “refresh her memory” about Mr Liu, and whether she was ever told about Haiquan.
“The amount of money at stake is so huge that it’s time for the people of NSW to find out exactly what their Premier knew about the relationship between Mr Maguire and Mr Liu,” said Mr Watson, now a director for the Centre for Public Integrity.
“The impact on the individual investors has been appalling.”
Mr Watson said Mr Maguire played an “instrumental” role in giving Haiquan the opportunity to claim its fraudulent scheme was legitimate.
“It was actually the trigger for the fraud because it was using his political office, his political position and actually the facilities of the Parliament itself to give some credibility to the whole of the project which it otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said.
“To a Chinese person, access to that is an indication that you’ve got access to the very, very pinnacle of power.”
No action from the corporate regulator
The same year Mr Maguire quit Parliament, Steven Foote resigned in anger at his bosses’ refusal to pay off debts owed by UWE businesses to Australian farmers.
Mr Foote was among a group of angry former UWE workers who lodged complaints about its businesses to agencies including corporate regulator ASIC and the Australian Tax Office (ATO), alleging criminal business practices including widespread tax and investment fraud.
ASIC decided to take no action. A spokesman told the ABC it did not comment on specific cases.
An ATO spokesperson told the ABC it “reviewed” all tip-offs but could not provide updates “due to the sensitive nature of our investigations”.
It said it could not confirm whether it was investigating UWE due to its confidentiality obligations.
Mr Liu and Ms Feng have declared more than $15 million in debt.
They were declared bankrupt and UWE went into administration this year, meaning most of their creditors are unlikely to ever see their money.
Steven Foote believes the fact they were able to expand their business for years, with the support of the Premier’s then partner, is a sign of a broken system in Australia.
“This could happen again,” he said.
“You have so many examples where companies are bringing money in and promising the world, but delivering an atlas.
“My message is to make accountability mean something again, hold these people to account and don’t allow them to go back into business.”
Watch the story on 7.30 tonight.
Digital Producer: Clare Blumer
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