Former minister says he was duped by alleged money laundering gangsters

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A former Howard government minister who promoted a money moving business that was allegedly run by Chinese gangsters says he has cut all ties with the company after being deceived into unknowingly spruiking its work.

Former immigration minister Gary Hardgrave said he has taken immediate action to terminate all involvement with Changjiang Currency Exchange.

A screenshot of former immigration minister Gary Hardgrave in a video promoting the Changjiang Currency Exchange.

A sting operation by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) saw the transnational crime syndicate behind the business accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars in dirty funds and tainted cryptocurrency.

“I was never involved in the day-to-day operations nor at a board level … today I feel shocked and duped,” Hardgrave told Sky News on Thursday.

Recruited in 2022, Hardgrave appeared in promotional videos for the company vouching for its reliability, including one describing Changjiang as a firm with security processes that had established “multiple layers of due diligence”.

There is no suggestion that Hardgrave is involved in any wrongdoing, is a police suspect or ever suspected Changjiang was involved in money laundering.

His comments came as six alleged members of the Long River syndicate faced Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Thursday, charged over handling large amounts of money that police allege were the proceeds of crime. A seventh alleged member of the crime syndicate, Zhuo Chen, appeared before magistrate Julie Grainger on Wednesday.

The AFP arrested the group on Wednesday as part of what they’ve described as the most complex money-laundering investigation in the nation’s history, having executed 20 search warrants across every mainland state while confiscating more than $50 million in property and vehicles.

The AFP has alleged Changjiang Currency Exchange facilitated a system for organised criminals to secretly launder more than $229 million over three years.

The court heard that one accused woman, Jie Lu, 28, has a child. Magistrate Steven Raleigh granted her permission to have regular phone calls with her mother so she could check in on the child.

Married couple Jing Zhu and Ye Qu, both aged 35 and from Kew, appeared for a brief hearing together. The court was told they have two children.

Another accused, Ding Wang, a 40-year-old from Glen Iris, waved at a woman seated in court, who waved back. Jin Wang and Fei Duan also appeared. It was the first time any of the accused had been in custody.

The court heard from several of their barristers that because it was their first time in prison and due to language barriers, they should be considered vulnerable. The group will return to court in March next year.

AFP officers issue a search warrant at a Changjiang shopfront in Sunnybank, Queensland.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Stephen Dametto said members of the crime syndicate lived the high life by eating at Australia’s finest restaurants, drinking the most expensive sake and travelling on private jets.

“These syndicates move illicit funds regardless of its origin or the harm it does to Australians,” Dametto said.

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