Political donations trial listens to WeChat offers

Policy

High Court trial of seven over political donations concealment hears deals on WeChat and party thanking wealthy donor while professing ignorance of his involvement

WeChat, the world’s largest mobile messaging app, took center stage in the Auckland High Court political donations trial with recorded audio messages found by the Serious Fraud Office describing a scheme to conceal the identity of a wealthy donor.

Messages between a Chinese-speaking defendant and two men who ‘passed’ money to the National Party as part of a secret $100,000 donation are part of a larger ‘Crown timeline’ of what it alleges to be a four-man scheme to avoid the requirements of election law.

The Serious Fraud Office pieced together WeChat text, audio and image messages, translated from Mandarin to English, as well as account statements and bank transactions, and international money transfers through a service called IE Money.

The court heard a man describe the need to split a large donation to avoid the identity of the donor being revealed and the bank accounts of “transmitters” being used to receive and then send smaller amounts to National. Another audio clip has a ‘sender’ joking that the wealthy donor could send him a million or two dollars and he could keep it in his account for a few days to earn the interest.

Crown attorneys have begun to detail how the first of two $100,000 donations to National from Auckland businessman and Chinese leader Yikun Zhang was split into seven $14,500 lots on behalf of seven different donors and sent to National Botany’s electorate bank account in June 2017. This figure falls below the $15,000 threshold for declaring a donor’s identity, which Zhang would have liked to avoid.

The domestic part of the case follows days when the High Court heard testimony from Labor Party officials and three people whose identities were used in a different scheme to buy paintings for which Zhang had also paid $60,000 as a donation that raised $35,000 at work in March 2017.

Both cases came to the attention of authorities after former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross made public allegations in October 2018 about the $100,000 donation to National, accusing its former chief Simon Bridges of corruptly involving Ross in breaking up the donation.

Police, then the Serious Fraud Office, investigated, arrested Ross, Zhang and twin brothers Colin and Joe Zheng and charged them with deception. When in early 2020 they lost their name deletion, the Labor Party reviewed their 2017 donations to see if any of the defendants had also donated to their campaign, finding that Colin and Joe Zheng the had done. The SFO then investigated the Labor art fundraising and accused three other people, whose names are suppressed, of having obtained by deception.

All seven defendants denied the charges in the case heard before Judge Ian Gault. Evidence in the Labor side of the case was halted on Monday as key Labor witnesses, including party chairman Nigel Haworth and cabinet ministers Michael Wood and Andrew Little, the party leader at the time of the artwork donation ‘art, can’t go to court until later in the week.

OFS opens case against National

John Dixon QC, for the Crown, called Kelvin Zheng, the older brother of the two defendants Colin and Joe Zheng, as a witness. He confirmed Colin’s WeChat text and audio messages asking him to use his bank account to receive and then transfer $14,500 to National.

“Older brother. President [Zhang] wants to donate $100,000 to the National Party, that’s true. So I split it into multiple account numbers… I’m thinking one on your side, using yours, to give a share, to contribute a share. So decide which account and send it to me so I can transfer the money to you, then you transfer it to another account.”

Kelvin Zheng sent his brother a picture via WeChat of his bank account number, Colin replied that he would deposit the money there, and then Kelvin should “immediately transfer it to the National Party Botany electorate. This is not not a big problem.”

Jami-Lee Ross, Simon Bridges, Yikun Zhang and Colin Zheng in 2018. Photo: Supplied

Wendy Andrews, acting for Colin Zheng, asked Kelvin Zheng if he would have refused her brother’s request if he had known that the origin of the money to be “transmitted” through his account was from their own father.

(The Crown had said in its opening statement that some of the money for the June 2017 $100,000 donation to National came from Yikun Zhang’s sister’s account in China and some came from Colin Zheng’s father. in China, before being distributed among the seven ‘transmitters’.)

“As a family man, I would probably make a few suggestions and probably say it’s probably best not to donate,” Kelvin Zheng said.

Andrews: “But because Colin said it was the president’s money, no discussion?”

Kelvin Zheng: “Yes, basically true.”

Another Crown witness was Jason (Jianfeng) Xie, who knew the Zhengs through house-building activities, and Zhang as the president of the Chao Shan Business Society.

He also received a WeChat message from Colin Zheng in June 2017 asking him to use his account to make a political donation.

“I need to ask a favor,” said an audio message from Colin Zhang, played in court. “The president of the association has to give money to the National Party, but it’s too much in one transaction and registration will be required, so he divides the amount into $14,000 per batch. It will probably have to be transferred via your account to the National Party to make it work.”

WeChat audio and text messages in Chinese were confirmed by Xie to be between him and Colin Zheng.

Xie: “No problem, the transfer of any amount is acceptable. Ask your association president to give me a million or two to spend for a while before I help you send it. ” He then suggested keeping the $14,500 for a day or two of benefits.

Colin Zheng: “Any donation over $15,000 must be registered. The president of the association donates $100,000, so he has to divide it into several lots. He doesn’t want his name registered.”

On the national side of the prosecution, the Crown intends to call eight other “transmitters” or “fictitious donors” to testify, as well as Simon Bridges, National chief executive Greg Hamilton, two other party officials and a former assistant to the deputy. Jami-Lee Ross.

Labor officials discussed auctioning off artwork, buying an imperial robe and finding out the identity of the donor

Earlier on Monday, Labor head office staff testified to the Crown over their checks in 2017/18 and again in 2020 when news of the identities of national donors broke, on raising funds for works of art and their statement of donations on the auction of a Chinese imperial dress for $90,000.

Last week, 2017 general secretary Andrew Kirton said the party had been satisfied that the list of names provided to it as buyers of the five paintings totaling $60,000 had been verified and recorded satisfactorily at the time. He said he did not notice the paintings hanging at the defendant Yikun Zhang’s home when he went there for dinner and posed for a photo in front of them. Kirton had prepared individual receipts for the people he was told had purchased each painting, but did not remember sending them and no one remembered receiving them.

Andrew Kirton with Jacinda Ardern in 2018. Photo: Facebook

Kirton also said he didn’t know if Zhang bought the imperial robe and other items at an auction Kirton attended with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and others at a Britomart Chinese restaurant in London. strongest of the 2017 election campaign. Labor had received a list of names of other “buyers” and registered those names.

However, in evidence yesterday, Yikun Zhang’s lawyer, John Katz QC, showed Yikun Zhang’s lawyer, John Katz QC, a direct thank you note from a few weeks after the President’s Imperial Robe fundraiser of Labour, Nigel Haworth, to Zhang for his donation.

“I am writing to thank you for your generosity at our fundraising auction on September 9 in Auckland,” wrote Haworth, who was then Kirton’s top executive.

“I want to assure you that your contribution has played its full part in the success of our campaign. I know that I speak on behalf of the whole of the Labor Party when I offer you, once again, my heartfelt thanks.”

Zhang even replied, but this information still does not appear to have been recorded by officials. “I’m beyond thrilled to see the success of the campaign you’ve had and your letter makes me feel like I’m part of it.”

Fergusson told Katz that she received Zhang’s response from one of the three defendants on the Labor side of the case, and passed it on to Haworth.

To Crown attorney Kim Hogan, Fergusson told the one-time $60,000 donation that was posted to Labor’s bank account on March 29, 2017, bearing the reference “Colin, April 1.”

“At this point, I said, ‘Where did that come from? Who is Colin? [artworks] auction.”

After investigation of two of the defendants, a list of five names and addresses was found and the values ​​of each were less than the established $15,000 for donations from painting purchases.

Katz asked Fergusson if it was unusual that the name of the person who deposited a donation into Labor’s bank account did not match such a list of donors.

“It’s usually the person buying the item who makes the payment.”

Katz told him that “no auction took place”.

He asked if she had been totally dependent on information from Andrew Kirton of two of the defendants for calculations made on sale prices and net values ​​for the party.

“Yes.”

Katz: “Do you accept that a lot of information in possession of [those two defendants] was not provided to you in 2017? »

“I don’t think I can say that.”

“Were you satisfied that you got all the information you needed?” »

“Looking back, no, I didn’t get all the information I needed.”

Earlier, Labour’s 2020 election campaign manager Hayden Munro told the court he was trying to establish whether the defendants named in the National case also donated to his party.

He discovered that Joe and Colin Zheng had done it and asked Kirton and the two defendants to establish the context of the art auction.

He was not told that one of the defendants whose name has been deleted bought the artwork for the party at auction, that this person had exchanged two of the paintings for his own at his home before they were sold, and that this man had not attended the auction.

Wendy Andrews, for Colin Zheng, suggested to Munro that he was misled by these two defendants when he tried to verify information in 2020.

“If what they told me wasn’t true, then yes.”

Later, Marc Corlett QC, for one of those defendants, attempted to reverse that thought for Munro. “If what they told you was true, then no, you weren’t misled.”

Munro: “It’s an interesting epistemological debate. My understanding is that I was misled, someone must have told me something they knew to be untrue and I’m not in a position to judge that. “