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Crown closes its case in donations trial

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A court has heard evidence relating to allegations former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross made in October 2018 about election donations. Times photo Wayne Martin

The Crown has highlighted multiple statements made in late 2018 by former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross as what it alleges is evidence of his involvement in wrongdoing relating to election donations.

Ross, who was ousted from Parliament at the 2020 general election, is on trial before Justice Ian Gault at the Auckland High Court alongside businessmen Yikun Zhang, Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

The Crown alleges the four men were involved in a plan to split two large donations made to the National Party in 2017 and 2018 into smaller amounts to avoid having to disclose the identity of the true donor or donors to the Electoral Commission, as legally required.

Ross, Zhang, and Colin Zheng each face two charges of obtaining by deception laid by the Serious Fraud Office.

Joe Zheng faces one charge of obtaining by deception and one charge of providing false or misleading information.

Zhang and the Zheng brothers also face charges, along with two men and a woman whose names are suppressed, over a donation made to the Labour Party at a fundraising art auction in 2017.

The Crown alleges the money the party raised at the event came from Zhang and not the five people whose names were provided to the party as the buyers of the same number of paintings.

Crown lawyer Paul Wicks QC delivered the prosecution’s closing argument in court on Monday.

He said an Electoral Commission official had testified during the trial that public disclosure of donations made to political parties is about transparency.

Underlying each charge facing the defendants is the subversion and manipulation of the public process of election donations, he said.

Wicks said in May 2017 Ross attended a dinner at Cibo restaurant in Parnell with his wife Lucy Schwaner and Zhang and Colin Zheng.

Zhang offered support to Ross at the dinner through Zheng, who translated, as Zhang speaks little English, Wicks said.

In the following days Ross sent Colin Zheng a copy of the National Party Botany electorate bank account deposit slip.

“It was clear from Ross’s messages he must have perceived disclosure of the donor’s name might be an issue,” Wicks told the court.

He said Zheng made arrangements with seven friends and family members for them to act as donors to National.

The treasurer of the National Party’s Botany electorate had testified Ross told him a $100,000 donation was coming from a function he’d taken part in.

“The Crown says that shows Ross knew it was a bulk amount,” Wicks said.

He said Colin Zheng talked with people about transferring money to National.

Zheng told people their association’s chairman, which the Crown says refers to Zhang, needed to donate to National and did not want his name disclosed so he needed to split it into several lots, Wicks said.

He said Ross sent a list of names and addresses of seven “transmitters”, or “sham donors”, to the party.

“With the 2018 National Party donation, the Crown says Yikun Zhang was the true donor, or interests associated with Yikun Zhang,” Wicks said.

“Yikun Zhang, Colin Zheng, and Joe Zheng worked with Ross to conceal the identity of the true donor.

“Ross knew who the true donor was but provided names of sham donors to the National Party.”

Wicks also pointed to Ross’s interview with police in October 2018 after Ross had made public allegations about then-National leader Simon Bridges and election donations.

Wicks said Ross told police he’d received a list of people’s names from an agent of the donor because the donor didn’t speak English.

“That is clear acknowledgement Ross knew or believed Yikun Zhang was the true donor.”

He said Ross delivered a media statement in October 2018 in which he said a $100,000 donation to National he’d collected had been split into smaller amounts below the $15,000 threshold and was not disclosed to the Electoral Commission.

Ross spoke to news media outside Wellington Central Police station after making his complaint against Bridges.

Wicks said Ross stated then that when the $100,000 donation had come in it was “split up”.

“There is no record of a donation of $100,000 made to the National Party,” Wicks said.

“The National Party’s records show these donations were made by eight people.”

Defence lawyers in the trial will make their closing arguments this week.

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