25 Feb 2020

Four men facing SFO charges over National Party donations plead not guilty

1:12 pm on 25 February 2020

Four men facing Serious Fraud Office charges over donations made to the National Party have pleaded not guilty at their first appearance at court today.

Jami-Lee Ross, left, arrives at Auckland District Court with lawyer Ron Mansfield.

Former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross arriving at court with his lawyer Ron Mansfield. Photo: RNZ Dan Cook

Sitting MP Jami-Lee Ross, Zhang Yikun, Zheng Shijia, Zheng Hengjia were charged by the SFO after a 10-month investigation.

They appeared before Judge John McDonald in the Auckland District Court this morning. A large contingent of media was present.

The charges relate to two $100,000 donations paid to the National Party - one in 2017 and the second in 2018.

The original complaint was made by Ross himself, when he fell out with his former party, National, and leader Simon Bridges in late 2018.

All four men face charges of deception; Zheng Hengjia has also been charged with providing misleading information.

Zheng Shijia's defence lawyer Paul Dacre QC told the court all four defendants were in a position to enter not guilty pleas to each of the charges.

Judge McDonald remanded all four men on bail - with an order to surrender their passports - to next appear in court in June.

Outside court, Ross gave a statement saying that he pleaded not guilty because he has "never been involved in any deception to do with donations".

"At the time these donations were made to the National Party, I was not aware of any conspiracy to defeat the Electoral Act by anyone."

He said he was the whistleblower.

"I still consider that I was right to raise these concerns. There is no own goal here, I have to trust the justice system in this country to establish that, otherwise who's going to come forward in the future to be a whistleblower for important issues like this?"

Ross said the National Party trolls had mounted a campaign to take him down and turn people against him, but that he did not think they would be able to influence the justice system.

He said he would continue to blow the whistle on foreign donations and that he would not be scared off - and he hoped others would not be either.

"We need to be united on this issue."

Ross said there were many questions he would like to answer, but it needed to be done before the courts.

"We're in the middle of a criminal justice situation and I'm being instructed that I'm unable to answer media's questions - they have to be done at trial, sorry.

"There's lots of questions I'd like to answer but there's a process under way. It needs to be done in front of a court. It's a fair process with natural justice. All arguments get answered and all these issues get examined properly by a jury."

The National Party said the comments made by Ross were nothing more than a vendetta being carried out by its former MP.

In a statement National said it had always maintained it had nothing to do with the "alleged illegal activity" and did not accept the way Ross was characterising his part in what happened.

It said it was Ross, not the party, who had ended up in court.

A spokesperson said National expected evidence that would "inform the public of the true facts" would be presented during the trial.

Outside court, Ross' lawyer Ron Mansfield said he was unsure about who would be called as witness in the trial.

Regarding his tilt for Botany against National Party candidate Christopher Luxon this election, Ross said nothing had changed.

The Serious Fraud Office prosecution is being led by Stephen Bonner QC and Katie Bannister.

Mansfield is representing Jami-Lee Ross and John Katz QC is representing Yikun Zhang.

Shijia Zheng, also known as Colin, is represented by Paul Dacre QC while Hengjia Zheng, also known as Joe, is represented by Rosemary Thomson.

Dacre said no election, for either jury or judge-alone trial, was being sought as it was likely the matter would eventually be transferred to the High Court.

The four defendants will next appear for a Crown review hearing in the Auckland District Court on 10 June 2020.