Almost three years after a rogue National politician raised concerns about donations to the party, and just a month before the MP himself and others were due to face trial over the claims, proceedings have been mysteriously delayed
The long-awaited trial of former MP Jami-Lee Ross and three others accused of deception over six-figure donations to the National Party has been postponed barely a month before it was set to begin.
The reasons for the delay are shrouded in mystery, with none of the parties involved willing to offer an explanation.
Concerns about donations to National were first raised by Ross himself after he was forced out of National in late 2018, with the former chief whip alleging then-leader Simon Bridges had improperly covered up a $100,000 donation from Auckland businessman Zhang Yikun earlier in the year.
The Serious Fraud Office began investigating the allegations, and in January last year announced it had filed criminal charges against four people over the allegations – subsequently revealed to be Ross, Zhang, and Zhang associates Zheng Shijia and Zheng Hengjia, after name suppression was lifted the following month.
Bridges, who had always maintained Ross’ allegations were “baseless” and he was not involved with the donations in question, was not charged.
All four face charges of deception, related to a $100,000 donation to National in 2017 and a $100,050 donation to the party in 2018.
The SFO described the defendants as having “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.”
Zheng Hengjia has also been charged with misleading the SFO, after allegedly telling 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 National.
A six-week trial had been due to begin on September 6 at the High Court in Auckland.
However, a court official told Newsroom the trial had been adjourned with no new dates set down, but said she was unable to provide further information on the reasons for the delay.
John Katz QC, representing Zhang, said he could not discuss the reasons for the adjournment as they were confidential and he had not been authorised by his client to speak about the matter.
Lawyers for Ross and Zheng Shijia did not respond to requests for comment, while an SFO spokeswoman told Newsroom the agency had no comment on the delay.
Other high-profile cases involving political party donations are still making their way through the system.
Two people charged with obtaining by deception in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation are set to go on trial in mid-2022, while in May the SFO filed charges against six people over donations made to the Labour Party.
At the time the Labour charges came to light, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told media the number of parties facing legal action “sends a message to us in the political system that we should be looking at the way our regime works”.