Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Donations case trial date set

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The defendants in the National Party donations case will go on trial at the Auckland High Court in July next year. Times photo Wayne Martin

A new trial date has been set for the four defendants in the National Party donations case.

Disgraced former Independent Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and his fellow co-accused Yikun Zhang, Shijia Zheng, and Hengjia Zheng are set to go on trial at the Auckland High Court on July 25 next year.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) laid criminal charges against Ross and the three businessmen in January 2020 over two large donations made to the National Party.

A donation of $100,000 was made in June 2017 and one of $100,050 in June 2018.

The Crown alleges the two donations were split into smaller amounts so the identity of the donor or donors was not disclosed in the National Party’s annual return of party donations.

Ross, Zhang, and Shijia Zheng each face two charges of obtaining by deception.

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

The Crimes Act 1961 states the charge of obtaining by deception carries a punishment of up to three years in prison.

The four defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges in February 2020.

The High Court initially set a trial date of September 6 this year but it was adjourned without explanation or comment from the SFO.

The legal saga began in late 2018 during Ross’s falling out with, and expulsion from, the National Party.

Then-National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett said at the time she’d raised issues with Ross about him engaging in inappropriate behaviour as a “married Member of Parliament”.

Ross accused then-party leader Simon Bridges of breaching the Electoral Act in relation to a large donation made to the party.

Bridges denied any wrongdoing and said Ross was a “terrible person”.

“He [Ross] defamed me and he is a liar,” Bridges said.

Ross released recordings he had secretly made of his private conversations with Bridges, in which they discussed potential future National Party candidates.

“Two Chinese would be more valuable than two Indians, I have to say,” Ross told Bridges.

Ross was also accused at the time of leaking Bridges’ travel expenses to the news media.

He denied the allegation, but an independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers stated while it did not identify the leaker of the expense documents with certainty, “the evidence we have identified points to Mr Ross”.

Bridges said Ross should take the allegations he had publicly made over election donations to police, which he subsequently did in October 2018.

Police investigated the matter before handing it to the SFO in March 2019, with criminal charges being laid against Ross and the three businessmen in January 2020.

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