Former MP acquitted of political donation charges

Judge Ian Gault’s verdict was delivered today in the Auckland High Court. Times file photo Wayne Martin

Former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross has been found not guilty on charges over two large donations made to the National Party.

Judge Ian Gault delivered his verdict in the case at the Auckland High Court on October 5.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) indicted Ross in early 2020 over a $100,000 donation made to National in June 2017 and a $100,050 donation in June 2018.

The former politician was charged alongside businessmen Yikun Zhang and Shijia (Colin) Zheng, and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

The Crown alleged the four men were involved in a plan to split two large donations made to National into smaller amounts to avoid having to disclose the identity of the true donor(s) to the Election Commission.

Ross, Zhang and Colin Zheng each faced two charges of obtaining by deception.

Joe Zheng faced a charge of obtaining by deception and a charge of providing false or misleading information.

Zhang and the Zheng brothers also faced charges, along with two men and a woman whose names are withdrawn, for a donation made to the Labor Party at a fundraising art auction in 2017.

Following a seven-week judge-alone trial that began on July 25, Judge Gault found the three people accused of donating to the Labor Party not guilty of all charges.

He also acquitted Zhang and the Zheng brothers of charges relating to the Labor donation.

Judge Gault acquitted Ross of both charges of obtaining by deception.

The judge found Zhang not guilty of the 2017 donation to National, but guilty of the 2018 one.

Colin Zheng was found guilty of donating to National in 2017 and 2018.

His brother Joe Zheng was found guilty of donating to National in 2018 and lying to the SFO.

During the trial, the Crown pointed to Ross’ public statements to the media in 2018 and in an interview with police in October of that year as what it alleged was evidence of his guilt.

“With the 2018 National Party donation, the Crown asserts that Yikun Zhang was the true donor, or interests associated with Yikun Zhang,” said prosecutor Paul Wicks KC during closing argument for the prosecution.

“Yikun Zhang, Colin Zheng and Joe Zheng worked with Ross to conceal the identity of the true donor.

“Ross knew who the real donor was, but provided the names of fake donors to the National Party.”

Wicks also referred to an interview Ross gave to Wellington Police in October 2018 after he made public allegations about then-national leader Simon Bridges and campaign donations.

He said Ross told police he got a list of people’s names from an agent for the donor because the donor didn’t speak English.

“It’s a clear acknowledgment that Ross knew or believed that Yikun Zhang was the true donor.”

Wicks said Ross gave a statement to the media in October 2018 in which he said the $100,000 donation had been “split.”

However, Ross’s defense attorney, Ron Mansfield KC, told the court that Ross’ statements in 2018 about his own involvement in the donations were lies intended to get revenge on Bridges after the couple broke up.

Zhang and the Zhengs will reappear in court for sentencing in November.