Political donations trial nears completion in Auckland High Court

The defense is due to begin closing statements today in the “shadow donors” trial which began on July 26.
Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

A lengthy trial over alleged concealed political donations is coming to an end, with the defense due to begin closing statements today.

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

The Crown alleges that three separate donations to the National and Labor parties were split into smaller amounts by “fictitious donors” to avoid triggering the disclosure limit and keep the public in the dark about the identity of the real donor – the wealthy businessman Yikun Zhang, who later received a royal honor.

Giving the Crown’s closing statements, barrister Paul Wicks said the heart of the matter was public transparency over political donations.

“Transparency that allows the public to be able to scrutinize the role of donors in shaping policy in the run-up to elections and for questions to ask parties about influence, relationships and other problems,” he said.

“The Crown says that underlying every charge against the defendants was the subversion and manipulation of the public process of political donations.”

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

The lawsuit merges two cases, one involving a $35,000 donation to the Labor Party in 2017 and another case involving two $100,000 donations to the National Party – one made in the same year and the other in 2018.

The donation schedule is closely linked, and Wicks told the court the modus operandi was the same.

“It is important, in analyzing the evidence in this case, to recall the intertwined nature of the case, the conduct of the defendants with respect to a donation being important context and evidence of propensity towards of their conduct, with regard to another gift.”

For National Party donations, the Serious Fraud Office 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 Labor Party donation, alongside three others with name suppression.

The defendants deny all charges.

Wicks said Crown 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 transfers…and the Crown’s evidence also establishes that he knew fake donors were being used.”

Wicks told the court it was important to “step back and look at the whole case and what was really going on here”.

“Mr. Zhang has made a series of donations to major political parties, presumably in an effort to gain influence with them. He clearly did not want his name to be released publicly as a donor. S had he wanted to, he could have very easily accomplished this,” he said.

“Maybe it was because he wanted to gain royal honor without there being any suggestion of influence, maybe he didn’t want the other party to know about his gifts, maybe -maybe there was some other unknown reason.”

Wicks concluded by saying that Zhang did not want the public or the other party to know about his donations to Labor and the National.

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

Jami-Lee Ross’ well-documented split with 2018 National Party leader Simon Bridges is part of the backstory of the trial.

When Ross filed a complaint with the police at the time, it set off a chain of events that led to him being charged by the SFO.

During the trial, the court heard how Ross’ mental health deteriorated and he was hospitalized days after the police complaint was filed.

Wicks said Ross’ mental breakdown doesn’t rule out his evidence.

“According to the Crown, Mr Ross will seek to argue that his 2018 confession should not be believed because he was mentally ill and acted irrationally in becoming a suicide bomber to shoot Mr Bridges.”

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

He said the court heard testimony from Bridges that Ross was able to handle “a lot of complexity with a lot of skill”.

“The argument that everything Mr. Ross said and did at that time should be disregarded or disregarded comes up against significant evidentiary hurdles, not the least of which is Mr. Bridges’ evidence that Mr. Ross was top-notch in the run-up to October 2018.”

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

This included the morning search of Zhang’s home, when the SFO seized more than 20 devices, including his children’s iPads.

The defendants’ lawyers will close their cases in the coming days. This morning, Zhang’s lawyer, John Katz QC, is due to make his closing statements.