9 Jun 2022

Donors confused by NZ First Foundation, trial told

7:11 pm on 9 June 2022

The High Court has heard from New Zealand First Foundation donors who believed they were giving money to party leader Winston Peters.

Two men are on trial in Auckland this month, accused of mishandling $750,000 the Crown says should have been treated as political donations.

Winston Peters.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has not been called to give evidence at the trial. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Media have fought to name the accused since they were charged but their identities remain suppressed by the High Court.

The 40-odd donors included horse racing, business and working folk who gave money to the foundation between 2015 and 2020.

Prosecutor James Carruthers today read through their statements, which showed many believed their money was going straight to Peters.

The motivations for donating varied; some liked New Zealand First's policies on immigration or Peters' support for the horse racing industry while others just liked Peters.

Many of the donors thought they were donating to him, one bank statement carrying the reference 'Winston'.

The court has heard this money was deposited into the bank accounts of the New Zealand First Foundation or the private business of a defendant.

Many donors told the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) they did not know the difference between the foundation and the party.

One person said it was not until the SFO started its investigation that they realised the foundation existed.

"I became aware of the existence of the New Zealand First Foundation once the Serious Fraud Office started their inquiry and I heard the name in media outlets.

"I had no knowledge of the New Zealand First Foundation at the time of the donation," they said.

The court also heard four donors who gave the foundation $12,500 each queried the legal obligation to declare who they were and confirmed their full names for this purpose.

They then received donation receipts, carrying the title New Zealand First Foundation, authorised by one of the defendants.

It was the Crown's case the accused obtained money by deception; that the donations were intended for New Zealand First and should have been treated as party donations.

The defendants who deny any criminal offending have said the evidence shows the foundation used the money as the party expected.

Peters' absence queried

In opening remarks on Tuesday, defence lawyer Tudor Clee told the court the party management had not been deceived and said Peters was "significantly" absent from the Crown's witness list.

"This is akin to the police charging a shopper and his friend with the burglary of his friend's shop. There's no evidence of a broken window, no evidence of a broken door, no evidence of any entry, there's nothing missing and the police do not call the shopkeeper to give evidence."

Someone who did give evidence today was John Thorn, the party's former vice-president for the South Island and member of New Zealand First's geographically elected board.

He had been working up a proposal that the party establish a foundation when the Serious Fraud Office showed him the deed to the one that already existed, he said.

Thorn told the court he felt "speechless, then angry and now profoundly disappointed" and blamed the party's leader.

"It was clear that whilst I was working on a proposal to create an organisation, it had already been created and was operating with the knowledge of people who attended the board meetings to which I presented my proposal and I felt as though I had been used and manipulated."

The judge-alone trial before Justice Jagose continues.

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