29 Sep 2020

Two people charged with 'obtaining by deception' in NZ First foundation investigation

8:16 pm on 29 September 2020

The Serious Fraud Office has filed a charge of 'obtaining by deception' against two people following its investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation.

Winston Peters at an election campaign event in Taupō, 17 Sept 2020

Winston Peters at an election campaign event in Taupō, 17 Sept 2020 Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

The two people have interim name suppression. However, the SFO says they are not a minister, sitting MP or candidate in the upcoming election, or a current member of the NZ First party.

Back in April, the SFO said it was on track to make a call before this year's election on whether to lay charges in relation to the investigation into the NZ First Foundation, which had been bankrolling the NZ First Party.

The issue centres around allegations the foundation received donations it should have treated as party donations.

New Zealand First went to court to try to stop the Serious Fraud Office from announcing the outcome of its investigation before the election - but failed.

The charges were laid by the Serious Fraud Office last Wednesday, but New Zealand First went to the High Court to attempt to delay the announcement until a new government has been formed after the election.

In a judgment, released today, Justice Palmer said New Zealand First's case was not particularly strong, and there was no evidence the SFO's decision to issue the public statement was influenced by political considerations.

Justice Palmer said the public interest in transparency outweighed the inconvenience of the announcement to New Zealand First.

"I consider there is a significant public interest in the New Zealand voting public being informed during an election campaign about criminal charges of serious fraud against people or organisations related to political parties," he said.

As a result, he declined New Zealand First's application for an order delaying the Serious Fraud Office's public announcement.

Here's how the issue has unfolded:

Revelations by RNZ and Stuff in late 2019 showed that the foundation received donations from entities connected with some of the country's wealthiest people in the business, fisheries and horse racing worlds.

None of the donations were declared in the party's electoral returns and the only disclosed source of money to New Zealand First since 2017 was a loan made by the foundation.

A complaint about the issue was made to the Electoral Commission in late 2019 and the issue was referred from the police to the SFO in February 2020.

Documents seen by RNZ show that between April 2017 and August 2019 nearly $500,000 was deposited into the foundation bank account, including payments from some of New Zealand's wealthiest business people or entities connected to them.

In many cases the donations were for amounts just under the $15,000.01 level at which the donors' names would normally be made public.

Over that period the foundation spent more than $425,000 paying bills for the New Zealand First party, including advertising expenses, fees for political consultants, rent, establishing a party HQ and running its website.

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