22 Aug 2022

Businessman at centre of political donations trial offered record $33m bail security, court hears

6:02 pm on 22 August 2022

A wealthy businessman at the centre of a political donations trial offered $33 million as bail security in his bid to travel overseas - the largest sum ever put on the Crown's table in New Zealand, a court has been told.

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File image Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Yikun Zhang, who is accused of funding deceptive donations to the National and Labour parties, also offered to forfeit his properties if he failed to return.

He is among seven people defending charges filed by the Serious Fraud Office in a trial being heard in the High Court in Auckland, which is into its fifth week.

Zhang's lawyer Lauren Lindsay told the court her client's mother was dying and he urgently wanted to visit her in China late last year.

"The surety took the form of Mr Zhang and his wife promising to pay the crown $33 million," she said.

"At the time it was the largest surety ever offered in New Zealand."

Serious Fraud Office investigator Lee Taylor gave evidence that the SFO had opposed Zhang's application to vary bail conditions last November, and again in December, concerned Zhang was a flight risk.

The High Court granted Zhang permission to travel last December, but his mother passed away while he was in MIQ in China.

The court heard how the SFO had not sought bail security for Zhang's assets before he travelled.

Under cross examination, Lindsay asked if Zhang "could have transferred all his assets and stayed in China and you could have done nothing about it", to which Taylor replied he was not certain that could have happened.

Lindsay said the Crown's opposition to her client's travel meant his sister, Shaona Zhang, did not have her brother with her when their mother passed away.

Shaona Zhang had been called as a witness to the trial but declined to appear.

Lindsay also said Zhang had sent his twin sons overseas for schooling because of "bullying arising out of the charges" and that he had been the subject of "baseless and damaging allegations" on social media.

"Despite all these impacts Mr Zhang has been forthcoming and helpful throughout this investigation."

The Crown alleges three donations made in 2017 and 2018 were split into smaller amounts among "sham donors" to avoid triggering the $15,000 disclosure limit and hide the identity of the true donor, Yikun Zhang.

For the two National Party donations, the Serious Fraud Office has charged Jami-Lee Ross and three businessmen Yikung Zhang, Colin Zheng and Zheng's twin brother Joe Zheng.

The three businessmen also face charges related to a Labour Party donation, alongside three others with name suppression.

All the charges have been denied.

The search warrant

The SFO searched Yikun Zhang's Auckland home in the early hours of a spring morning in 2019.

Lindsay said Zhang's wife and young children were present and Zhang was co-operative, opening a locked wine cellar and breaking open a cabinet in his garage.

The SFO seized 26 devices from his house, including his children's iPads.

"One of their [Zhang and his wife] primary concerns was the fact that the nine people in their house were wearing shoes inside, which is an understandable concern for members of the Chinese community," Lindsay said.

"The SFO team refused to remove their shoes for health and safety reasons."

Throughout its investigation the SFO seized numerous devices, requested millions of documents and did more than 50 interviews.

Zhang was the last defendant interviewed by the SFO in 2020.

Lindsay said he returned from China to attend one such SFO interview in January 2020, relating to donations made to the National Party. The interview lasted four hours and the SFO laid charges against him that month.

In relation to the Labour Party donation, the SFO interviewed Zhang for nearly three hours in September 2020 and filed charges the following May.

The SFO also did 30 interviews with representatives of the National Party, and 25 with representatives of the Labour Party.

Lee Taylor is the final witness to give evidence on behalf of the Crown.

The trial continues.

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