Wednesday, May 22, 2024

SFO explains decision to charge in donations case

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Karen Chang is the director of the Serious Fraud Office. Photo supplied

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is explaining its decision to lay criminal charges over political donations after achieving convictions against just three of the seven defendants.

Among those charged were former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and businessmen Yikun Zhang, Shijia (Colin) Zheng, and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

The trio were accused of 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.

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.

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

The seven-week judge-alone trial began on July 25 in front of Justice Ian Gault at the Auckland High Court.

During the trial the Crown pointed to public statements Ross made to the news media and during a police interview in late 2018 as being what it alleged was evidence of his guilt.

Prosecutor Paul Wicks KC told the court during his closing argument that Ross had delivered a media statement in October 2018 during which he said the $100,000 donation made to National earlier that year had come in “split up”.

However, Ross’s defence counsel Ron Mansfield KC said the statements Ross made in 2018 about his own involvement in the donations were lies told by a mentally unwell and suicidal man and were intended to exact revenge against then-National Party leader Simon Bridges after the pair fell out.

Justice Gault delivered his verdicts in court on October 5.

He found Ross not guilty of both charges the former politician was facing and acquitted the three people charged in relation to the donation made to Labour.

Justice Gault 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.

Following the verdicts, the SFO publicly released a statement from director Karen Chang about the case.

“New Zealanders have the right to know who is funding the party they support and to be able to make an informed decision when they head to the voting booths,” she says.

“Transparency around political donations is vital to the continued health of New Zealand’s democracy and our global reputation for low levels of corruption, both of which deserve protecting.

“It is extremely important we take action when we believe this reputation is at risk.”

Zhang and the Zheng brothers are scheduled to reappear in court to be sentenced in November.

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