8 Sep 2022

Political donations High Court trial expected to conclude today

9:01 am on 8 September 2022

The High Court at Auckland

The trial at the High Court in Auckland is expected to finish today. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

A seven-week trial over alleged concealed political donations that took three years to reach the High Court in Auckland is drawing to a close today.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) brought charges against seven people, including former MP Jami-Lee Ross, claiming they helped to split one or more of three large donations to the Labour and National parties into smaller amounts to hide the true donor, businessman Yikun Zhang, from public scrutiny.

All defendants deny the charges.

The SFO has been criticised by some on the defence bench during the trial.

Giving his closing statements, lawyer Sam Lowery told the court they did not dispute the importance of protecting the electoral system's integrity.

"No one in this room would dispute that it was appropriate for the SFO to dedicate the resources required to get to the bottom of it. No one in this room could fault the SFO for taking these matters seriously but it's important at the end of an investigation decisions are made based on where the evidence leads."

Lowery said the SFO still had not provided enough evidence to prove its case.

The SFO said it had spent just over $100,000 on lawyers and consultants including translators - and the trial prosecutors were costing just over $2000 a day.

That doesn't include the thousands of hours its own investigators and forensic accountants spent poring over millions of documents, executing search warrants and seizing computers and cellphones.

"It can be tempting for a regulator to think we've done a huge amount of work here and poured a massive amount of public money into this investigation so let's just barrel ahead with charges," Lowery said.

"After all it's up to the court to decide so we'll just lay them and see what happens and if the pros fails at trial it might just spark a debate about amendments to the law."

But even in levelling the charges, Lowery said the SFO had done damage to the accused.

"The problem is criminal proceedings aren't a game, it's not monopoly. It's the real world and in the real world serious allegations have serious consequences. The Crown has levelled very serious allegations against these defendants, life altering allegations."

The trial merges two cases, one concerning a $35,000 donation to the Labour Party in 2017 and another case concerning two $100,000 donations to the National Party - one made that same year and another in 2018.

For the National Party donations, the Serious Fraud Office has charged Jami-Lee Ross and three businessmen Yikun Zhang, Shija (Colin) Zheng and Zheng's twin brother Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

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

Lowery told the court his client, a man with name suppression, did allow his name to be put forward as a donor to the Labour Party.

But he said his client was unaware of any plan to commit fraud or to hide the identity of the alleged true donor, Zhang.

Paul Dacre QC, acting for businessman Colin Zheng, whom the Crown alleges was among those taking part in the scheme to hide the true donor, told the court his client - a Justice of the Peace - was not aware of the rules for disclosing donations.

"There's another way of looking at this and that is to say, well look, it's such a shambles nobody seems to know how these donations are done."

The trial is expected to draw to a close today, with Jami-Lee Ross's lawyers summing up.

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