He was a high-rolling gambler with a mysterious fortune who lavished cash on political parties and boasted of his connections to MPs - the curious case of Chinese millionaire Yong Ming Yan, also known as Bill Liu, surfaced in the weeks leading up to the 2008 election, embarrassing senior Labour figures.
It has now returned to haunt Labour MPs in Opposition, as they face awkward questions about just how a wealthy donor, wanted for fraud in China, was granted citizenship – overruling the advice of high-ranking officials.
Before the High Court at Auckland, the defendant facing four counts of fraud is Yong Ming Yan. To his MP mates he is Bill Liu. He was granted citizenship in the name of Yang Liu. Days later he changed it to William Yang, and was granted a passport.
It is believed he arrived in New Zealand in late 2001, already a wealthy man, although how he made his millions remains a mystery.
Court documents detail four monikers and several birth dates: he explains this away by saying he was an orphan who was fostered. His various passports put him at either 39 or 42 years old.
Yan was granted permanent residency here in mid-2002. Soon he was known around the tables at Auckland's SkyCity casino, reportedly playing blackjack and baccarat for 15-hour stretches.
He paid cash for a $2million-plus apartment in the swanky Metropolis tower in central Auckland. Five years later he bought a home in Bayswater, valued at $5m. He is married, to Vienna, with two children, aged 7 and 4.
One report suggested that in 2007, a winning streak caused the casino to miss profit targets. Internal Affairs (DIA) confirmed in 2009 Liu was one of several "gamblers of significance" they had discussed with SkyCity.
By May 2005 Yan had applied for citizenship. But a month later Chinese authorities posted a "red notice" with Interpol.
They claimed he was born Yong Ming Yan and stole the identity of Yang Liu in 1999, obtaining two false passports. He was wanted for embezzlement.
Friends say the claims were false, made because Yan is a long-time supporter of Falun Gong, opponents of the Communist regime.
Three months later, bank accounts he held in Australia were frozen and in June 2007, $4m was sent to the Chinese Government. Yan was not convicted of any offence – he agreed to the repatriation without an admission of liability – but allegations swirling around him were so serious immigration officials suggested his permanent residency be revoked.
Then-immigration minister David Cunliffe recommended further investigation. In April 2008, immigration obtained a search warrant; they wanted the documents Yan had provided to DIA as part of his application for citizenship.
Five months later, Yan was granted citizenship – against the recommendation of DIA officials.
As matters had not been resolved with the Chinese, Yan did not pass the good character requirement, officials concluded.
When the news was broken to Yan, he was unfazed. One official told the court this week that he put his hands behind his head and leaned confidently back in his chair.
DIA case officer Olele Gambo said Yan was 99 per cent sure the application would be granted.
"He said he had a lot of support from members of Parliament ... He was going to take them to China."
Investigating officer Bruce Ross told the court Yan was happy to let his application go to the minister.
The file, with a recommendation that citizenship be declined, passed to Internal Affairs Minister Rick Barker. Mr Barker delegated it to associate Shane Jones because of a conflict of interest. He was a friend and, accompanied by wife Jennifer, had visited Yan at his home.
MP Dover Samuels wrote twice to Mr Barker complaining of delays and also wrote to Mr Jones saying Yan had been "victimised".
"I was a personal friend of his and his family before his children were born," Mr Samuels said yesterday. "His wife and children are New Zealanders."
Mr Samuels said he believed the charges were withdrawn by Chinese authorities and that Yan had not committed any offences in New Zealand. "He's a bloody good bloke. He was persecuted."
Labour's Chris Carter and National's Pansy Wong also wrote letters of support for his citizenship. Mrs Wong, who resigned from Parliament last year, could not be reached for comment.
Yan donated $5000 to both National and Labour during the 2005 election campaign. A host of politicians, including Mrs Wong, held fundraisers at his Manukau restaurant, which he is believed to have sold in 2008.
Officials told the court this week that Yan was sworn in as a New Zealander a day after Mr Jones received the file.
- © Fairfax NZ News