6 Sep 2022

Political donations trial draws to a close in High Court in Auckland

9:33 am on 6 September 2022
Auckland court coat of arms.

The defence is due to start its closing statements today in the 'sham donors' trial which began on 26 July. Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

A lengthy trial over alleged concealed political donations is drawing to a close, with the defence due to start its closing statements today.

Seven people, including former MP Jami-Lee Ross, are defending charges laid by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) of obtaining by deception, in the High Court in Auckland.

The Crown alleges three separate donations to the National and Labour parties were split into smaller amounts by "sham donors" to avoid triggering the disclosure limit and keep the public in the dark about the true donor's identity - wealthy businessman Yikun Zhang, who then received a royal honour.

Giving the Crown's closing statements, lawyer Paul Wicks said the crux of the case was public transparency over political donations.

"Transparency that enables the public to be able to scrutinise the roles of donors in policy making in the lead up to elections and for questions to be put to parties about influence, relationships and other issues," he said.

"The Crown says that underlying each charge faced by the defendants was the subversion and manipulation of the public process of political party donations."

Over the six weeks of the trial, the court has heard evidence from witnesses ranging from forensic accountants and translators to current and former politicians, party insiders and a mayor.

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.

The timeline for the donations is intertwined, and Wicks told the court the modus operandi was the same.

"It's important in analysing the evidence in this case to recall the intertwined nature of the case with conduct of the defendants in respect to one donation being important context to, and propensity evidence in respect of their conduct, in respect of another donation."

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.

The defendants deny all charges.

Wicks said the Crown's evidence establishes that Zhang was the source of the money and sought to hide his identity from the public.

"He was actively involved in initiating all of the transfers ... and the Crown's evidence also establishes that he knew sham donors were being used."

Wicks told the court it was important to "step back and consider the case as a whole and what was really going on here".

"Mr Zhang made a series of donations to the largest political parties, no doubt in an effort to obtain influence with them. He plainly did not want his name to be publicly disclosed as the donor. Had he wanted that he could very readily have accomplished this," he said.

"Perhaps it was because he wanted to get a royal honour without there being any suggestion of influence, perhaps he did not want the other party to know about his donations, perhaps there was another unknown reason."

Wicks closed saying that Zhang did not want the public or the other party to know of his donations to both Labour and National.

Earlier on Monday, he detailed the Crown's evidence against each defendant.

Jami-Lee Ross's well-documented fracture with the 2018 National Party leader, Simon Bridges, is part of the trial's backstory.

When Ross laid a complaint with the police at the time, he set off a chain events resulting in him being charged by the SFO.

During the trial the court has heard how Ross's mental health spiralled and he was hospitalised within days of laying the police complaint.

Wicks said Ross's mental breakdown does not discount his evidence.

"As the Crown understands it Mr Ross will seek to argue that his 2018 confession should not be believed because he was mentally unwell and acting irrationally going full kamikaze to take down Mr Bridges."

Wicks told the court Ross understood and was aware there was a single donor behind the two National Party donations that had been split.

He said the court had heard evidence from Bridges that Ross was able to deal with "a lot of complexity very competently".

"The argument that everything Mr Ross said and did at that time should be discounted or ignored runs into some significant evidential hurdles, not the least of which are Mr Bridges' evidence of Mr Ross being high functioning in the period leading up to October 2018."

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

This included conducting an early morning search of Zhang's house, when the SFO seized more than 20 devices including his children's iPads.

Lawyers for the defendants will close their cases over coming days. This morning Zhang's lawyer John Katz QC is due to give his closing statements.

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