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Woman gets record prison term in money laundering case

12:26 17/11/2023

By  George Block of NZ Herald

Ye Hua stands outside Auckland District Court ahead of her bail hearing in December.

Ye Hua stands outside Auckland District Court ahead of her bail hearing in December. Photo: NZ Herald / Jason Oxenham

She was the churchgoing matriarch of a prosperous Auckland family whose money exchange business funded a St Heliers mansion.

Now Ye "Cathay" Hua, who laundered what a judge says was at least $18 million for the drug cartel of Xavier Valent, is the recipient of the longest prison term for money laundering ever handed down by a New Zealand court.

In the Auckland District Court on Thursday morning, Judge David Sharp sentenced the 58-year-old to seven years and six months in prison.

Crown prosecutor Sam McMullan said it was a case without comparison in New Zealand history.

"By value, Ms Hua's offending is many magnitudes more serious than any other case which has been before a court in this country," McMullan said.

A jury found Hua guilty of 15 out of 19 money laundering charges in July following a three-week trial.

All charges, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years each, alleged she either knew the cash was the proceeds of crime, or was at least reckless as to whether it was ill-gotten gains.

Most of the charges covered money allegedly sent overseas into foreign currency from her Newmarket money shop Lidong Foreign Exchange, or converted into bitcoin, at the behest of Valent.

He was jailed for life earlier this year for his role as the kingpin of his sprawling drug syndicate, which brought more than 100kg of meth into New Zealand from 2016 to 2020.

The remainder of the charges covered transactions with two low-level drug dealers and a former key lieutenant of Valent, who became the star witness for the Crown at Hua's trial.

He gave crucial evidence that helped seal her fate and was granted anonymity and immunity from prosecution on certain charges.

The witness said the cash could become wet or sticky - one of the key red flags in the Crown case - because it was being handled by people who were manufacturing or using meth.

Valent was a micromanager during the period he was travelling the globe on the run from late 2016 to his eventual arrest at the Italian border in 2020 on an Interpol warrant.

He would tell her when to expect one of his associates to arrive at Lidong's office in Newmarket, dubbed the "money shop" or "Newmarket money lady" in messages obtained by police.

Asked at the trial what was meant by the money shop, the secret witness was unequivocal.

"That's Cathay's money shop. Number 1 Kent St, Newmarket."

All charges against Hua alleged she either knew the cash was the proceeds of crime, or was at least reckless as to whether it was ill-gotten gains.

McMullan said she repeatedly ignored red flags, including the fact the money was sometimes wet or covered in powder and arrived in supermarket bags delivered by suspicious characters.

The amount of money Hua laundered was the subject of dispute prior to sentencing. The Crown contended it was $26m while defence said about $6m to $10m was more accurate.

Judge Sharp said he had concluded at least $18m was laundered across the 15 charges.

McMullan sought a starting point of 13 years in prison.

"Any mitigation provided to her ought to be tempered by the scale of her offending and the duration," he said.

Hua's lawyer, David Jones KC, made much at her trial of what he and witnesses described as her trusting nature that could extend to naivety and gullibility.

At sentencing, Jones compared her to situation to a scam victim whom others might view as stupid, but who would say "well, I trusted them".

He acknowledged prison was inevitable.

But he asked for Hua to be given some time to arrange her affairs, given she had dependant and vulnerable family members. This was granted by the Judge, who deferred the start of the sentence by 10 days.

Judge Sharp said he did not see the seven-year maximum on each of the individual money laundering charges as limiting, given the duration of her offending.

He adopted a starting point of 10 years, tempered with discounts for personal circumstances and good character, as testified in a large volume of letters placed before the court from family, former employees, and churchgoers and ministers.

The end sentence comprised cumulative sentences of six years for the first five charges, and a year-and-a-half for the rest.

"On any appreciation this is an extreme case of money laundering," Judge Sharp said.

This article was first published by The New Zealand Herald.

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