Huang Xiangmo: mystery of the $11m property payout, the middleman and his 81-year-old mother

Ben Butler, Ben Doherty and Anne Davies

The exiled Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo has said he wants the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption to investigate how $11m he paid towards a Sydney property ended up with the Obeid family’s former lawyer Sevag Chalabian – money that was reportedly paid into the bank account of a company controlled by Chalabian’s 81-year-old mother.

Responding to reports of the payment, Huang said on social media: “truth is what’s overdue. Calling all investigatory powers to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible… where did that A$11mn payment in Bakehouse Quarter deal go?”

Seph Glew, the founder of Kirela, the property trust that sold Huang the Bakehouse Quarter development in Sydney’s inner west, told the Guardian the payment to Chalabian was an “introduction fee”, paid as part of a deal that was brought to him by a real estate agent in mid-2017.

Glew said Huang’s Yuhu group agreed to pay a non-refundable fee of $38m to Kirela for an option to buy Bakehouse Quarter, of which $11m was to be paid to Chalabian.

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“We interacted with Sevag Chalabian and we agreed a fee and paid the fee where directed,” he said.

But a spokeswoman for Huang said the businessman “was not aware of the payment split issue referred to”.

“The lawyer featured was not the purchaser’s solicitor,” she said. The Guardian understands Huang’s position is that he paid $38m to Kirela but had no knowledge of where, or to whom, the money was then directed.

The Australian Financial Review has reported that Kirela paid the money into the bank account of a company controlled by Chalabian’s mother, but Glew said he was unaware of this.

“I don’t know where Sevag’s mother comes into it, that’s not something I would investigate,” he said.

Chalabian, a former property lawyer, held interests for the corrupt Obeid family, and currently faces charges of conspiracy to defraud nearly $25m paid to his former law firm, as part of a blackmail operation connected to a tax office fraud case.

Controversy over the purchase by Huang’s property group, Yuhu, of the development, a commercial and retail hub in a former Arnott’s biscuit factory, comes amid continuing uncertainty over the status of what was once his flagship project, the luxury One Circular Quay tower on prime Sydney land overlooking the harbour.

The proposed twin-tower apartment and hotel development, housing more than 300 luxury apartments, remains a scar in the ground at present, with no builder appointed, and none likely for months.

Huang is exiled from Australia and is understood to be living in Hong Kong after his permanent residency was torn up by the Morrison government, on advice from security agencies over character concerns. His application for citizenship was withdrawn.

The Australian Taxation Office obtained a freezing order over his Australian assets in September, after telling the federal court he owed $140m in tax.

Glew told the Guardian he has never met Huang.

He said Bakehouse Quarter was not on the market in early 2017, when he was “persistently” approached by real estate agent Ben Kirby, of Ray White Commercial, to sell the property.

“I would have had 20 phone calls from him around early 2017 saying, ‘Come on mate, we’ve got a real buyer’,” he said.

Glew said the agents then brought Chalabian to a meeting with him.

“Effectively you might say that the agents introduced us to Sevag and he proposed a fee for introducing a buyer.”

“It’s not like we met Yuhu first and then he came along later.

“It’s a far from unique event… it’s pretty normal.”

However, he said the transaction did have one unusual aspect: the delivery of a cheque for $38m along with an unsigned agreement.

“That’s pretty unusual, an unsigned draft document that nobody’s read plus a cheque arriving on your desk, but that probably says more about our state of mind than theirs,” he said.

“At that point we were reluctant sellers so they were showing their bona fides by lobbing up a cheque with no conditions on it.”

He said he banked the cheque and paid Chalabian his fee.

Chalabian and Kirby have been contacted for comment.

Yuhu originally agreed to pay $420m for Bakehouse Quarter, but after a series of option extensions – for which Yuhu paid Kirela additional millions – the sale finally settled in April this year for $380m.

Huang had been a prominent Sydney property developer and political donor – regularly photographed with prime ministers and key politicians – before his permanent residency was rescinded in 2018.

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In 2015, political parties had been warned not to take money from Huang – a prolific political donor, giving more than $2.7m since 2012 to both sides of politics – out of concern he was seeking to influence Australian politics on behalf of the Chinese Communist party.

Huang’s links to Labor’s Sam Dastyari – who took money from Huang for personal expenses and was exposed tipping off Huang that his phone was tapped – ultimately cost the senator his parliamentary career.

Huang has also emerged as a central figure in hearings before Icac. It’s alleged he gave an illegal $100,000 donation in cash – carried in an Aldi shopping bag – to the NSW Labor party in 2015, and paid $30,000 to the then party general secretary Jamie Clements to pay legal fees.

And Huang remains locked in a dispute with the Australian Taxation Office, which is chasing him for $140m in unpaid tax, interest and penalties.

The tax office has successfully won an order freezing all of his assets worldwide, arguing the reclusive billionaire does not have enough assets in Australia to pay the bill, and has been pulling tens of millions in assets out of the country since he was exiled. The ATO may seek to bankrupt Huang in Australia in order to retrieve the unpaid amount, the federal court has heard.

Huang is fighting the ATO’s claim, and, in a swingeing but vague attack, called the tax office a “despicable tool for political persecution”, saying “unknown dark forces” and an Australian “deep state” were conspiring against him.