Former National MP Jami-Lee Ross is one of the four men charged by the Serious Fraud Office in the National Party donations case – alongside a Chinese community leader who reportedly gave $100,000 to the party, and two others.
Name suppression for Ross and his co-accused Zhang Yikun, Zheng Shijia, and Zheng Hengjia was lifted by the Auckland District Court on Wednesday afternoon after the latter trio applied to end the secrecy. Ross’ lawyers did not object.
Ross was the originator of a complaint in 2018 to the police over a $100,000 donation he had publicly claimed showed his former party leader Simon Bridges was corrupt. The police referred the matter to the SFO but in January it was Ross, not Bridges or other National figures, who was among those charged.
He is now an independent MP in Botany and is fighting this year’s general election against National candidate Chris Luxon, the former Air New Zealand chief executive.
Ross released a four-page public statement to the media saying that while he was “shocked” he was being targeted by the SFO, he had no intention of hiding it.
“I always wanted to make it very clear that as the whistle blower on this deception, it was outrageous that I was then charged and that others were seeking to implicate me, making me their expendable scape goat.
“However, I couldn’t speak up, as I needed to respect the right of those three people to seek name suppression. Further, even though I made no application for name suppression, the same protection was extended to me by the court despite me not wanting that.”
Ross said as much as he would like to provide detail and evidence he was constrained now the matter was before the court.
Newsroom revealed that the court charges against the men show the SFO alleges there were two, not one, $100,000 donations to National that had been split into eight smaller parcels falling under the $15,000 threshold, thus not appearing in the party’s annual return of donations. They occurred in June 2017 and June 2018.
Zhang Yikun has been a prominent member of Auckland’s Chinese community, photographed with political and civic leaders in Auckland and as an adviser to the Southland District Council. The Canterbury University academic and well-known China expert, Professor Anne-Marie Brady, has said Zhang is a leader in the Chinese Communist Party’s overseas United Front activities.
Zheng Shijia, also known as Colin Zheng, is a business partner of Zhang Yikun, a trustee of the Chao San organisation, and has taken part in National’s candidate college. He was made a justice of the peace in 2017.
The SFO’s wording for the joint deception charges says: “By deception or without claim of right directly or indirectly obtained for the National Party possession of, or control over, any property, namely a $100,050 [for the 2018 charge] donation made to the National Party between June 1, 2018 and June 8, 2018 (‘the 2018 donation’) in circumstances where the identity of the donor was not disclosed in the National Party’s Annual Return of Party Donations.”
The SFO describes the offending over the donations in these words: “The defendants adopted a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem whereby the … donation was split into sums of money less than $15,000 and transferred into bank accounts of eight different people before being paid to, and retained by, the National Party.”
For the charge of misleading the SFO, the charging document says: “In the course of complying with a requirement … of the Serious Fraud Act 1990 supplied information knowing it was false or misleading in a material particular.”
The SFO says of that charge that Zheng Hengjia told investigators a $100,000 sum transferred to their account was a deposit for a building on another person’s property – when the money had been intended as a donation to the National Party. Further, in 2019 Zheng created, signed and back-dated a contract to that end, when no real contract for that work existed. The office alleges the made-up contract copied wording from an unrelated contract.
National’s leader Simon Bridges said when the charges were announced that “as expected”, neither he nor his party had been charged following the investigation.
“I have always maintained I had nothing to do with the donations. As I have always said, the allegations against both myself and the party were baseless and false,” he said.
Legal counsel for the three defendants Zhang, Zheng and Zheng issued a press statement saying:
“Our clients are fully aware of the public interest in this case and the need to respect the integrity of the New Zealand electoral system. It is for this reason they have asked for name suppression to be lifted and for the process surrounding the charges to be open and transparent.
“Our clients are proud New Zealanders and philanthropists. They were urged to follow a process and are now deeply disappointed at being caught up in a donation’s fiasco. They have supported numerous community groups over many years through fundraising activities and donations, including donating to many political parties and campaigns.”
“Our clients believe they are casualties of the turmoil created through mudslinging during the high-profile fallout following Jami-Lee Ross’ revelations and allegations about the National Party and will be defending the charges against them,” the statement said.
The four defendants are due in court next Tuesday, February 25.