Thursday, April 25, 2024

Convictions quashed in SFO donations case

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The Auckland High Court was the site of a high-profile trial late last year over donations made to political parties. Times file photo Wayne Martin

The Court of Appeal has overturned the convictions of three businessmen in relation to large donations they made to the National Party.

Yikun Zhang, Shijia (Colin) Zheng and his twin brother Hengjia (Joe) Zheng went on trial alongside former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and three defendants whose names are suppressed in front of Justice Ian Gault in the Auckland High Court last year.

Zhang and the Zheng brothers were accused with Ross of allegedly taking part in a fraudulent scheme to split up two large donations made to the National Party in 2017 and 2018 into smaller amounts so the identity of the true donor or donors was not disclosed to the Electoral Commission as legally required.

Ross, Zhang, and Colin Zheng each faced two charges of obtaining by deception.

Joe Zheng faced one charge of obtaining by deception and one charge of providing false or misleading information to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) during its investigation.

Zhang and the Zheng brothers also faced charges, along with two men and a woman, over a 2017 donation to the Labour Party.

The Zheng brothers are understood to live in east Auckland and according to the NZ Companies Office they’re connected to properties in Flat Bush and Pakuranga.

At the conclusion of their trial, Gault acquitted the three defendants who have name suppression of all charges.

He also acquitted Zhang and the Zheng brothers of the charges relating to the donation to Labour.

Zhang was found not guilty over the donation to National in 2017, but guilty over the one in 2018.

Colin Zheng was found guilty in relation to the donations made to National in 2017 and 2018.

His twin brother Joe Zheng was found guilty over the donation to National in 2018 and of lying to the SFO.

Ross, who was reported in March this year to be running an escort agency in Auckland CBD, was acquitted of all charges.

Zhang and the Zheng brothers appealed their convictions at a hearing in September, with the Court of Appeal releasing its decision on November 9.

All of their convictions were quashed with the exception of that of Joe Zheng for lying to the SFO.

No retrials have been ordered, leaving the SFO with just one conviction relating to one of seven initial defendants.

A summary of the Court of Appeal decision states the law is clear a defendant must obtain, either directly or indirectly, a benefit themselves through their deceptive conduct.

“It is not sufficient that the National Party obtained a benefit (being the donation amount).

“Therefore, as there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the appellants themselves obtained any benefit, the convictions must be quashed.”

The court said freedom from public scrutiny may have a value.

“However, the value of the benefit cannot be calculated simply by deducting $15,000 (the declaration threshold under the Electoral Act 1993 at the relevant time) from the donation amount, as was submitted by the SFO.

“There is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the appellants obtained a benefit as a result of their deceptive conduct.”

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