Donations cases merge for trial

The Auckland High Court will hear allegations involving election donations when a trial begins in July next year. Times photo Wayne Martin

The defendants charged over election donations to New Zealand’s two major political parties will now be tried together.

A ruling by Auckland High Court Justice Ian Gault on November 29 granted an application by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to combine two cases involving donations to the National Party and Labour Party in one single trial set down to take 10 weeks.

The SFO laid charges against disgraced former Independent Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and businessmen Yikun Zhang, Shijia Zheng, and Hengjia Zhen 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.

It’s now set to begin on July 25 next year.

In May this year the SFO laid criminal charges against six people, all of whom have name suppression, in relation to election donations made to the Labour Party in 2017.

The legal saga in the National Party case began in late 2018 during Ross’s falling out with and subsequent 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 phone 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 that 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 then 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.