Andrew Little and Michael Wood will take a stand in political donations lawsuit

Labor ministers Andrew Little and Michael Wood will give evidence later this week in a High Court trial over an alleged covert donation in 2017.

Michael Wood and Andrew Little
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

This is the second week of the trial in which seven people have pleaded not guilty to charges related to voter fraud.

The lawsuit merges two cases and also concerns two donations to the National.

This week he is focusing on sorting out payments related to the purchase of five paintings and a subsequent donation to the Labor Party.

The Crown alleges that an auction held to sell paintings and split the donation into smaller amounts was a ruse to avoid triggering the $15,000 disclosure limit and hide the true donor.

Among the witnesses will also be the wife of Jami-Lee Ross, who is due to testify tomorrow.

Today a former Labor Party official said he alerted the media that the party had received money from two of those accused of donating to the National Party, in order to be transparent.

The court was informed of an article published by RNZ in 2020 and based on the statement sent to the media, via SMS.

The SFO charged three people in connection with donations to both parties.

The accuracy of the press release has been questioned.

Andre Anderson, who was Labor Party secretary at the time, sent the statement.

“Labour wanted to be transparent with the New Zealand public about whether we had also received donations from the same donors.”

Asked by Joe Zheng’s lawyer, Rosemary Thomson, if this was “potentially a political scandal as it relates to the Labor Party?” he said “no, I don’t know why you’re suggesting that.”

Defendants and charges

The lawsuit merges two separate cases involving two large donations to National and one to Labour.

These are heard together because three of the seven people facing charges brought by the SFO were involved in donations to both parties.

They are Chinese Auckland businessman and recipient of royal honor Yikun Zhang and his right-hand man Shija (Colin) Zheng and Zheng’s twin brother, Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

The Crown brought charges of obtaining by deception under the Crimes Act, alleging attempted deception by means of a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem.

Alongside Ross, the trio are accused of two $100,000 donations to National in 2017 and 2018.

The trio and three others whose names have been removed face charges related to a $35,000 donation to Labor in 2017.

Joe Zheng is also accused of providing information knowing it to be false or misleading during interviews conducted by the Serious Fraud Office.

The defendants in both cases deny all charges.

week one

The first week of the Auckland High Court trial took place under the shadow of Covid-19 after one of the defendants, Yikun Zhang, tested positive before appearing in court on the first morning.

This delayed proceedings by a day, and then on Tuesday another defendant whose name is deleted had to rush home and connect via video link after his wife tested positive.

For National Party donations, Crown prosecutor John Dixon said the money came from accounts linked to Zhang (and possibly Colin Zheng in one case), but was funneled through “fake donors” from the Chinese community who gave smaller sums to National to circumvent disclosure rules. .

For the Labor Party, a donation of $35,000 is on the table, linked to five paintings which people paid $60,000 to – says the Crown – split the money. The Crown will submit evidence that Zhang was the source of the money and the true owner of the paintings.

Dixon said the defendants failed to follow proper procedure.

“The proper record should have been that Yikung Zhang was the donor of one hundred thousand dollars or potentially Yikung Zhang and Colin Zhang and the information should have been provided to the Election Commission within ten working days of this donation.”

Over the next few weeks, the witness box will welcome an array of familiar names from the political sphere and the public sector.

Among the 54 witnesses are former National Party leader Simon Bridges, Labor MPs Andrew Little and Michael Wood, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Southland Mayor Gary Tong and New Zealand Ambassador to Indonesia Trevor Matheson.

Unable to move the trial to a larger courtroom, the press bench risks spilling over into the defendants’ box and the public gallery.