Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Political party donations trial begins

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Former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross is one of seven people on trial over alleged wrongdoing in relation to political party donations. Times file photo

Seven people are defending charges in an Auckland High Court trial relating to alleged wrongdoing over large donations made to political parties.

Among the defendants are former Independent Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, businessman Yikun Zhang, and twin brothers Shijia (Colin) Zheng, and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

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

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

The charges were laid by the Serious Fraud Office and all four defendants have pleaded not guilty.

Their trial got under way before Justice Ian Gault on Tuesday.

Part of the case relates to two large election donations made to the National Party.

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

On trial alongside Ross and the three businessmen are two men and one woman charged over election donations made to the Labour Party in 2017.

The trio have interim name suppression.

The Crown case is being presented in court by prosecutors Paul Wicks QC and John Dixon QC.

Dixon delivered the prosecution’s opening statement on Tuesday morning.

He said the case involves the manipulation of political party donations.

The defendants intended to deceive the secretaries of the National and Labour parties “and thereby the Electoral Commission and the public”.

Dixon said the Crown alleges Zhang, or Zhang and one of the Zheng brothers, was the true donor of the donations made to National in 2017 and 2018.

He said given the size of the donations the names of the donors would have to have been declared to the Electoral Commission, but weren’t.

The true donors wanted to conceal their identities from the Electoral Commission and the public, Dixon said.

He said the donation of $100,000 made to the National Party was split into amounts under $15,000 and transferred to the bank accounts of people who had agreed to be “sham donors”.

It was then transferred to the party as if the money was the sham donors’, when it wasn’t.

Dixon said the sham donors were represented to the party as the true donors and the party’s secretary was kept in the dark.

The true donor gained a benefit by their identity not being publicly disclosed.

He said Joe Zheng lied and provided false documents in an attempt to mislead during his compulsory interviews with the SFO during its investigation into the National Party donations case.

Dixon said Ross was the National Party MP for Botany at the time the two donations were made to the party in 2017 and 2018.

Ross was in frequent contact with Zhang and Colin Zheng and was one of the people who supported Zhang’s nomination for a royal honour, Dixon said.

“The Crown alleges Ross knew Zhang was the true donor, yet he provided the National Party with a list of names of sham donors and represented to the party that they were the true donors.”

Dixon said the Crown will show Ross “admitted his conduct” regarding the 2018 National Party donation.

The trial continues and is expected to take about 10 weeks.

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