29 Aug 2008

Peters to stand aside

8:35 pm on 29 August 2008

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters is standing aside while the Serious Fraud Office investigation into donations to his New Zealand First Party is underway.

He has requested the Prime Minister Helen Clark take over his foreign affairs, racing and associate senior citizens portfolios. She says she will take over his roles on a temporary basis.

Miss Clark said it was clear to both her and to Mr Peters that it was appropriate that he stand aside while the SFO makes its investigation.

Mr Peters says he hopes the investigation will be done quickly.

The first meeting between the New Zealand First leader's lawyers and the SFO will be held on Saturday morning.

Mr Peters was meeting Miss Clark in Auckland late on Friday afternoon over his position in the Labour-led Government.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Peters said he would present the Prime Minister with evidence that allegations against him regarding party donations are wrong. He also signalled he would not offer to step down from his ministerial post.

Peters is innocent says QC

A lawyer hired by Mr Peters says his client has been subjected to an unjustified witchhunt.

Auckland QC Peter Williams says he has seen a statement from the Spencer Trust, which received donations, and it shows the money was used as intended.

"Helen Clark is aware of the statement which shows the money was paid in and dispersed according to direction," he says.

"There is absolutely no impropriety by Winston Peters at all. The whole thing is just a witchhunt."

Mr Williams says he will give this information to the Serious Fraud Office on Saturday morning.

The Serious Fraud Office announced on Thursday it will look into allegations that donations to New Zealand First from Sir Robert Jones and the Vela family did not reach their intended destination.

The National Party leader John Key has hardened his stance over Mr Peters.

Speaking after the announcement, Mr Key ruled out completely National working with New Zealand First post-election. He says Mr Peters has no credibility.

Parliamentary inquiry

The Privileges Committee has invited Winston Peters, his lawyer Brian Henry and expatriate businessman Owen Glenn to give evidence next week.

The committee is considering whether Mr Peters should have declared a $100,000 donation from Mr Glenn towards his legal bills in 2005.

The committee is expected to hold a closed three-hour session on Thursday morning.

Sir Robert Jones told Morning Report on Friday that Mr Peters has not shown him any financial records. A $25,000 donation from Sir Robert, intended for New Zealand First, was first paid to the Spencer Trust.

The Lower Hutt businessman says he has written to New Zealand First MPs Dail Jones and Doug Woolerton seeking clarification over the issue, but has not received a satisfactory response.

Sir Robert says he would be upset if the allegations his donation never reached its intended destination are proved.

SFO inquiry ridiculous - Peters

At a meeting of Grey Power members near Auckland on Friday Mr Peters attacked a number of media organisations, saying he will choke the media with facts.

He says he has written to the Serious Fraud Office and is questioning why he was not interviewed before an investigation was launched. He says he is not prepared to be intimidated.

Mr Peters says the SFO investigation is "ridiculous" and no-one from the office has spoken to him about claims which he insists could be cleared up in minutes.

He says the investigation has been launched because of his past criticism of the office for failing to follow up on taxation cases. He says the SFO did not have the courtesy to tell him about its decision - he heard it on the radio.

Threshold met for investigation

SFO director Grant Liddell says investigators will, in particular, look at allegations that funds donated to the party by Sir Robert and the Vela family did not reach their intended destination.

Mr Liddell says he is satisfied the threshold has been met for beginning an investigation and that it may reveal serious and complex fraud. However, he emphasised that there may be innocent and honest explanations over the donations.

Mr Liddell says he is satisfied that the $100,000 donation from Owen Glenn is above aboard, as documentary evidence shows the money was donated for Mr Peters' legal expenses.