Alleged PNG crime boss on 457 visa wanted over theft of $30m
Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker
457 Visa Fiasco
How did one of PNG’s accused crime bosses get an Australian 457 visa, allowing him to live in Cairns, travel abroad and elude the law?
- An alleged crime boss wanted in Papua New Guinea over the theft of $30 million has used a 457 visa issued by the Australian government to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Eremas Wartoto, accused of being one of PNG’s most corrupt figures by anti-graft authorities, has been living in Cairns since mid-2011.
He obtained a 457 visa, the foreign skilled worker visa at the centre of a Gillard government crackdown, after learning PNG authorities planned to charge him in August 2011.
Since then, Mr Wartoto has claimed to be too ill to face trial in Port Moresby over serious criminal charges laid against him in absentia two years ago.
But travel records obtained by Fairfax Media reveal that Mr Wartoto has travelled to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands during the past two years and has been able to return to live in Australia each time because of his 457 visa.
Mr Wartoto returned to PNG on Wednesday after Fairfax Media made inquiries about why he was in Australia and tried to photograph him in Cairns.
But he continues to evade arrest, with authorities in PNG unable to find him since his return and fearing he plans to flee to Australia again.
”Having ignored this case for too long, Australia must cancel Wartoto’s visa immediately. It should have been cancelled many months ago,” a senior PNG government source said.
Mr Wartoto’s 457 visa was not rescinded – a move open to the Gillard government – after he was charged in 2011 or after a decision last month by a Brisbane district court judge to freeze Mr Wartoto’s Queensland assets under proceeds-of-crime legislation.
Mr Wartoto is linked to powerful PNG politicians, including Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato who controls the law firm representing him.
Mr Wartoto obtained his 457 visa after a Cairns car hire company he owns sponsored him on the basis there was a shortage of ”general corporate managers” in the area.
The revelations about Mr Wartoto and his 457 visa come as Prime Minister Julia Gillard arrived in PNG on Thursday for a three-day visit, where she is reportedly expected to announce PNG citizens will be able to apply for Australian visas online and obtain multiple entry visas valid for five years.
Mr Wartoto is one of several allegedly corrupt PNG figures a Fairfax Media investigation has found to be using Australia as a refuge from anti-graft investigators or to invest millions of dollars in dirty money.
Commonwealth agencies responsible for tracking suspicious money flows into Australia have done little to freeze or reject these funds. The federal government has been accused by PNG anti-corruption sources and the federal opposition of ignoring the nation’s graft problem while Australia is providing nearly $500 million in aid.
The head of the PNG corruption taskforce, Sam Koim, recently called Australia ”the Cayman Islands” of the Pacific because of the tens of millions of dollars corruptly siphoned from PNG and invested here.
Fairfax Media has surveyed Queensland property records, revealing that PNG citizens, including several ministers, politicians and top bureaucrats, are among the largest investors in multimillion-dollar properties in the state’s north.
Records show more than 80 properties in the Cairns area have been bought by PNG investors since 2005, including four owned by Mr Wartoto and others by suspected corrupt senior politicians.
In Brisbane and the Gold Coast, at least 80 properties have been bought by PNG investors.
Another businessmen suspected of high-level corruption has siphoned $5 million in dirty funds to Queensland without fielding questions from Australian authorities or banks.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said Ms Gillard had to explain to PNG authorities during her visit what action the Australian government had taken to ensure Mr Wartoto returned to respond to the charges against him.
”It is vital for Papua New Guinea’s long-term economic growth that existing corruption is uncovered and safeguards put in place to minimise future instances of corruption,” Ms Bishop said.
A spokesman for Foreign Minister Bob Carr said foreign affairs staff in Canberra had discussed Mr Wartoto’s case with officials from the Immigration Department. But legal matters involving Mr Wartoto meant the nature of the talks could not be disclosed, he said.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon said Ms Gillard should use her visit to PNG to pursue an agreement to allow financial intelligence to be better shared between the two countries.
”PNG is Australia’s closest neighbour and biggest recipient of our overseas aid,” Senator Rhiannon said.
”Australia can play an important role in identifying suspicious activity and working with PNG authorities to seize corrupt funds and extradite corrupt officials to PNG for judgment,” she said.