8 Jun 2022

Former insider frustrated by NZ First MPs' reluctance to fundraise

7:21 pm on 8 June 2022

The New Zealand First Foundation fraud trial has had a glimpse of the party's inner workings from a former insider.

The High Court at Auckland

The trial is taking place in the High Court in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Two people are on trial in the High Court at Auckland this month, accused of mishandling $750,000 which the Crown says should have been treated as party donations.

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

The pair deny any criminal offending and today heard evidence from former friend and colleague Apirana Dawson.

Dawson told the court he started his career interning for Winston Peters in the mid-2000s, later landing a job in the party's chief whip office and then as director of operations.

In the witness box today, he said he believed the party's funding structure was outdated with New Zealand First MPs not required to tithe a portion of their parliamentary salary like other MPs.

"I was also frustrated because the MPs wouldn't go off and put up any real effort into fundraising for their own electorates," he said.

"You know, they'd come to Parliament but then they wouldn't do any of the work round actually going out and fundraising for the party itself."

Dawson said he sometimes paid bills himself before seeking reimbursement and believed a centralised fundraising database was a good idea.

The court was walked through a series of emails today where Dawson and both defendants discuss fundraising and expenses.

The emails also include invoices, like $5500 Australian dollars for New Zealand First's campaign on the flag referendum.

"Quite often when you have an issue that's quite a hot button issue, you can look at Three Waters as one at the moment, it's a great way to generate your database and increase the size of it, so that's what we were doing here."

The court heard the fundraising website once crashed because the bills hadn't been paid and Dawson told a colleague in an email the accused was onto it.

"I have the person handling finance for this on the case," he wrote.

It's the Crown's case the defendants obtained and controlled money from 40-odd people who believed they were donating to the New Zealand First party.

Instead, Paul Wicks QC has argued the money was deposited into the bank accounts of the New Zealand First Foundation or one of the defendant's private companies and not treated, or publicly declared if the sums were large enough, as political donations.

As well as paying for a fundraising database, the money at the centre of this case was also used to rent an office space in Lambton Quay that carried the sign 'New Zealand First Party headquarters'.

Dawson referred to this space as the "campaign office" and said it was used for such activities.

"It was all New Zealand First work. So the stuff that we did in there was billboards, hoardings, EDMs for the campaign, digital work and building websites."

He disagreed with correspondence from one of the defendants who'd written the office space was rented for the purpose of his private business, not the party.

"My understanding was that it was for New Zealand First business."

Dawson later quit working for New Zealand First, frustrated that his vision for modernising the party was not coming to fruition.

He said he'd had conversations with party leader Winston Peters, described as being fond of sausage sizzle fundraisers, about modernising the party and its funding process.

Under cross-examination, Dawson elaborated on New Zealand First's money qualms and internal party politics.

He agreed Peters, as chief executive of New Zealand First, oversaw all of its finances, even at his own expense.

"Winston had been through elections previously where he was left having to pay the debt for the election campaign himself.

"I didn't really see either the electorates or MPs or the board doing much in the way of any successful fundraising."

Dawson also said Peters had expressed frustration at the lack of fundraising but told defence lawyer Tudor Clee this didn't mean his work generating money got him any pats on the back.

"Winston is not one that offers praise like that a lot," he said.

This afternoon, the prosecution began reading through the statements of donors who'd given the New Zealand First Foundation money, believing they were donating to the party.

Several of these statements suggest the donors didn't know there was any difference between the New Zealand First Foundation and the New Zealand First party.

The judge-alone trial before Justice Jagose continues.