New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has denied reports his party may have breached electoral law by funnelling donations through a secretive “foundation” to avoid public disclosure.
At the centre of the allegations is the mysterious New Zealand First Foundation, which is run by Peters’ lawyer and confidante Brian Henry and former party president Doug Woolerton, and has loaned the party nearly $200,000 since the last election.
On Tuesday morning, Stuff reported an investigation had uncovered financial records showing donations from wealthy donors that had been used to fund electoral campaigns, an MP’s legal advice, and a $5000 day out at the Wellington races.
Stuff said donors to the foundation included primary industry leaders, wealthy investors and multi-millionaires, with former New Zealand First treasurer Colin Forster telling the website he had been moved out of the party after querying the source of the funds.
A New Zealand First spokesperson denied the allegations, telling Stuff there “has never been any suggestion that it is anything other than lawful”.
National deputy leader Paula Bennett said the allegations appeared to be extremely serious, with questions around whether the law had been broken.
“I think that it is clear that donations are to be transparent, that there are thresholds there, and that trying to get around it, as the Prime Minister herself has said quite recently, is not within the spirit of the law.”
Justice Minister Andrew Little would not comment on the allegations against New Zealand First, saying he did not have enough detail and other organisations like the Electoral Commission were better placed to comment.
However, Little said it was clear that the country’s electoral legislation as a whole was in need of an update.
“The reality is the advice I get from the Commission and the Ministry of Justice is that our Electoral Act 1993 is really the 1956 act with MMP added, and it is time to do a ground-up review…
“With what we now know about the way elections in other democracies around the world are being run and challenged, we’ve got to make sure our law is up to speed and that is something I would like to see happen after the next election.”
New Zealand First MP and former deputy leader Tracey Martin expressed ignorance about the reports, saying: “I don’t know anything about the New Zealand First Foundation.”
Asked whether she was concerned by the allegations, Martin said simply that they were “interesting”.
Peters would not comment on the allegations in detail when approached by media before New Zealand First’s caucus meeting this morning, but said he would put out a press statement later in the day to “put the record straight”.
“For 27 years we’ve obeyed the electoral law of this country, we’ve never deviated, the last time there was allegations like this was in 2008.
“There were three inquiries, the Serious Fraud Office, the police and the Electoral Commission – they all found us to be exonerated, we’re not going to have this again.”
In the subsequent statement, Peters said: “Allegations raised this morning by Fairfax Media [sic] concern a party matter but I am confident that New Zealand First has operated within electoral laws, now and for the last 27 years. Declarable donations were declared to the Electoral Commission.
“Our system of democracy is based on the secrecy of the ballot and privacy of party memberships and donations within specified limits. We look forward to discussing this matter with the Electoral Commission.”
In 2008, Peters was indeed cleared by police, the SFO and Electoral Commission over allegations of fraud regarding a $100,000 payment from Owen Glenn to his lawyer Henry. However, he was formally censured by Parliament after its privileges committee said he had “knowingly provid[ed] false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests”.