Photo: Peter Dutton and Huang Xiangmo. (ABC News: Georgina Piper )
Chinese Communist Party-aligned billionaire Huang Xiangmo paid tens of thousands of dollars to former Liberal minister Santo Santoro while mounting a back-room campaign to secure Australian citizenship.
In 2016 Mr Santoro arranged a one-on-one meeting for Mr Huang with then-immigration minister Peter Dutton.
Despite meeting inside the private suite of a Chinese restaurant in Sydney in 2016 — access to one of the most powerful ministers in the Turnbull government that few others could have obtained — Mr Huang ultimately failed in his citizenship bid after ASIO objected to his links to the Chinese Communist Party.
An investigation by Four Corners, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald can also reveal that in 2015, Mr Dutton gave approval for then-Labor MP Sam Dastyari to conduct a private citizenship ceremony for Mr Huang's wife and two children.
Citizenship ceremonies are almost always held in public, and private "special purpose" conferrals are usually only granted for applicants who are ill or have urgent needs and are unable to attend a typical town hall ceremony.
The conferral allowed Mr Huang's family to expedite their citizenship by weeks or even months and was granted by Mr Dutton after he was told by Mr Dastyari that the family urgently wanted to travel overseas. Mr Huang's family now runs his business interests in Australia since he has been expelled from the country.
Recordings have separately emerged showing Mr Santoro — a former factional ally of Mr Dutton who is now a senior lobbyist — claiming Mr Dutton was one of his "best friends" and that, in return for payment of at least $20,000, Mr Santoro could provide clients access to staff within Mr Dutton's office to help efforts to expedite migration applications.
Mr Santoro is recorded stating:
"There is nobody else anywhere who is better placed than me to help you through this particular part of the project. Nobody. … I can go to somebody in the minister's office and say 'can you have a close look at this?'."
In early 2015, months before Australia's political parties were warned by ASIO that Mr Huang posed a risk of engaging in foreign interference on behalf of Beijing, Mr Dutton used his power as immigration minister to authorise Mr Dastyari to hold a private, expedited citizenship ceremony for Mr Huang's wife and children.
The ceremony was held inside Mr Dastyari's office in early 2015.
This allowed Mr Huang's family to effectively skip the citizenship ceremony queue and obtain their Australian passports in early 2015.
Mr Dastyari, who resigned in 2017 over his own dealings with Mr Huang, said he had written to Mr Dutton asking him to grant the Huang family expedited citizenship.
"I thought there was a snowflake's chance in hell that this was going to get approved and the pace and speed of which it got approved at the time surprised me, and in hindsight concerns me," Mr Dastyari said.
In a statement to Four Corners, Mr Dutton said Mr Huang "has never made a donation to my campaign".
"Mr Dastyari will need to answer questions around his request for a citizenship ceremony," Mr Dutton said.
Pressed about the appropriateness of his own role assisting Mr Huang, Mr Dastyari said he had resigned from the parliament over his dealings with Mr Huang and it was "ludicrous" to suggest Mr Dutton had expedited the ceremony as a favour for a Labor senator.
Private lunch: The Minister and Mr Beijing
The following year, in 2016, Mr Huang's own citizenship application was stalled by ASIO over concerns about his links to the Chinese Communist Party.
A big donor to political parties, universities and charities since his arrival in Australia in 2011, Huang headed a Chinese Communist Party lobbying and influence organisation in Sydney, called the ACPPRC.
Increasingly anxious about his stalled citizenship, Mr Huang turned to another political contact, Mr Santoro, a former minister in John Howard's government turned lobbyist.
The joint investigation obtained a confidential recording of a meeting in which he boasted about his direct line to Mr Dutton. In the recording, Mr Santoro is heard saying "one of my best friends is Peter Dutton".
Mr Santoro vouches for Mr Dutton's integrity as "the most honest politician that I have ever come across", but said he also "tries to be helpful" if there was "a capability or a critical mass of investments that comes into Australia".
The confidential recording reveals Mr Santoro has claimed his lobbying service extends to helping people attempting to expedite immigration applications, and that he can access Mr Dutton's office for a fee of at least $20,000.
"If I am going to be doing the work and going to Canberra with a copy of the visa application and hand it over to somebody and say 'can you help?', no, no, I want to get paid and get paid up front," he said.
In 2016, as Mr Huang became increasingly anxious about securing his own citizenship, he put Mr Santoro on a retainer.
In March that year, Mr Santoro arranged a lunch between Mr Huang, Mr Dutton and the minister's senior staffer in a private room at Master Ken's upmarket seafood restaurant in Sydney's Chinatown.
When questioned by Four Corners, The Age and SMH, Mr Santoro confirmed the lunch had taken place, but denied its intent was to provide Mr Huang direct access to Mr Dutton — the man most citizenship applicants could only dream of meeting to push their case.
Mr Santoro said his work for Mr Huang was limited to providing introductory services and denied offering to help Mr Huang obtain citizenship.
Asked why he was paid by Mr Huang for at least a year, Mr Santoro said: "That's between myself and Mr Huang."
"But generally speaking, it would have been just to, I suppose, assist him to understand Australian politics," Mr Santoro said.
Mr Dutton declined to answer specific questions about his dealings with Mr Santoro, but said he had been "introduced to Mr Huang as a leader in the Sydney Chinese community and had lunch with him on that basis".
"I have certainly never made representations on his behalf to the Department [of Immigration] or anyone else," Mr Dutton said.
Mr Huang declined to answer specific questions, but through a spokesman said his dealings with Mr Santoro were limited to "advice regarding business" including "development of the volcano area in Sicily, Italy".
Mr Huang's attempt to get a passport failed and last November, on advice from ASIO that he posed a risk of foreign interference, he was banned from re-entering Australia.