1 Aug 2022

Andrew Little and Michael Wood to take stand in political donations trial

6:48 pm on 1 August 2022

Labour ministers Andrew Little and Michael Wood will give evidence later this week in a High Court trial over an alleged concealed donation in 2017.

Labour ministers Michael Wood (l) and Andrew Little.

Michael Wood and Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

It is the second week of the trial in which seven people have pleaded not guilty to charges relating to electoral fraud.

The trial merges two cases and also concerns two donations to National.

This week it is focused on unravelling payments linked to the purchase of five paintings and a subsequent donation to the Labour Party.

The Crown alleges an auction held to sell paintings and split the donation into smaller amounts was a ruse to avoid triggering the $15,000 disclosure limit, and hide the true donor.

Also among witnesses will be Jami-Lee Ross's wife, who is due to take the stand tomorrow.

Today a former Labour Party official said he alerted media to the fact the party had received money from two of the people facing charges in relation to National Party donations, in order to be transparent.

The court was shown a story RNZ ran in 2020 that was based on the statement sent to media, via text.

The SFO has charged three people in connection to donations to both parties.

The accuracy of the media release was questioned.

Andre Anderson, who was Labour Party secretary at the time, sent the release.

"Labour wanted to be transparent with the New Zealand public about whether we'd also received donations from the same donors."

Asked by Joe Zheng's lawyer, Rosemary Thomson, whether it was "potentially a political scandal as far as Labour's concerned?" he said "no, I'm not sure why you would suggest that."

The defendants and the charges

The trial merges two separate cases concerning two large donations to National and one to Labour.

These are being heard together because three of the seven people facing charges laid by the SFO were involved in donations to both parties.

They are Chinese Auckland businessman and royal honour recipient Yikun Zhang and his right-hand man Shija (Colin) Zheng and Zheng's twin brother Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

The Crown has laid obtaining by deception charges under the Crimes Act, alleging attempts to deceive by way of a fraudulent device, trick, or stratagem.

Alongside Ross, the trio are charged in relation to two $100,000 donations paid to National in 2017 and 2018.

The trio and another three individuals with name suppression face charges related to a $35,000 donation made to Labour in 2017.

Joe Zheng also faces charges of supplying information knowing it was false or misleading during interviews conducted by the Serious Fraud Office.

The defendants in both cases deny all charges.

Week one

The first week of the High Court trial in Auckland took place under the shadow of Covid-19 after one of the defendants, Yikun Zhang, tested positive before appearing in court the first morning.

That delayed proceedings for a day, then on Tuesday another defendant whose name is suppressed had to hurry home and dial in by video link after his wife tested positive.

For the National Party donations, Crown prosecutor John Dixon said the money came from accounts linked to Zhang (and possibly Colin Zheng in one instance) but was funnelled through "sham donors" from the Chinese community who paid smaller amounts to National to sidestep disclosure rules.

For the Labour Party a donation of $35,000 is on the table, linked to five paintings people paid $60,000 for to - the Crown says - split the money. The Crown will submit evidence that Zhang was the source of the money and the true owner of the paintings.

Dixon said the defendants did not follow proper procedure.

"The proper recording should have been that Yikung Zhang was the donor of one hundred thousand dollars or potentially Yikung Zhang and Colin Zhang and that information should have been provided to the Electoral Commission within ten working days of that donation being made."

Over coming weeks the witness stand will host an array of familiar names from the political sphere and the public sector.

Among the 54 witnesses are former National Party leader Simon Bridges, Labour MPs Andrew Little and Michael Wood, the Prime Minister's press secretary, Southland mayor Gary Tong and the NZ Ambassador to Indonesia Trevor Matheson.

Unable to move the trial to a larger courtroom, the press bench is likely to overflow into the dock and the public gallery.

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