22 Jul 2022

NZ First Foundation case: Men charged over handling of donations found not guilty

2:27 pm on 22 July 2022

The two men charged over the handling of donations to the New Zealand First Foundation have been found not guilty.

The High Court at Auckland

Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

The pair were on trial in the High Court in Auckland last month, accused by the Serious Fraud Office of obtaining nearly $750,000 by deception between 2015 and 2020.

They denied deceiving the New Zealand First party by collecting and spending money the Crown argued should have been treated as donations - with reporting obligations.

Earlier this week the High Court judge who heard the case permanently suppressed the names of the two men.

Justice Jagose said the identities of the men were less important than the role they played and the principle of open justice had been largely met.

This morning, Justice Jagose released his decision.

The trial

Over the course of the trial, the court was told the New Zealand First party was having money troubles roughly a decade ago.

Evidence presented to the court showed insiders were concerned it had no consistent funding stream and was missing bill payments, sometimes at party leader Winston Peters' own expense.

It was within this context the Crown said two men set up the New Zealand First Foundation.

John Dixon QC for the Crown said they gathered and spent money donated to the foundation, keeping it secret from the party, its leader and its board.

"They did not know how the foundation was funded, how much money it had or what it was spending it on. There were no board updates on the foundation activity; they were kept in the dark."

The defence

The defence argued the Crown had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and, crucially, had failed to call a key witness in its own case.

That witness?

Winston Peters. The New Zealand First Party leader was repeatedly mentioned yet the trial did not hear any evidence from him.

This was a focal point of the defence's closing arguments: that without Peters the Crown's case did not stack up.

"What the Crown is effectively saying is that Mr Peters was duped and if that's the case what is the point in not calling him?"

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Despite being mentioned frequently, Winston Peters did not give evidence in the case. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The court heard money was used to pay for a software system and rental expenses of an office space on Lambton Quay that bore the sign 'New Zealand First Party Headquarters'.

It also paid for boxer Joseph Parker to speak at a party conference and the production of a video of Peters touring the country during the 2020 election campaign.

The evidence of many of the donors, who gave individual sums that totalled nearly $750,000, was that they gave money believing it was going to the party or Peters.

Peters responds

Speaking to RNZ, Peters claimed vindication, describing the allegations as "politically-motivated and spurious".

"We've set out to demolish them and we have. I'm very, very grateful to those New Zealanders who, through thick and through thin, stuck with us on this matter."

Peters said many in the media sought to conduct "trial by media" and pushed a narrative which was immensely damaging to the party.

"It had a profound effect on the 2020 election, and ever since, we have been - as a party - struggling with that cloud over us."

Peters said he intended to hold certain journalists liable for an "abuse of power", saying media outlets must be held responsible.

"The attacks we had day in, day out, from certain sources. There'll be time to deal with that. Today, they've all been proven to have misled the people of the country."

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