A small group of wealthy business people banded together to fund Winston Peters and New Zealand First before the 2017 election, helped make him Kingmaker and ultimately helped achieve a change of government.

Evidence before the High Court at Auckland this week showed two distinct groups were inspired to donate in bands of $10,000 or $15,000 and in totals of up to $50,000 to ensure their industries – horse racing and natural health products – had the benefit of NZ First’s policies in government.

A total of $750,000 that flowed into the party’s separate NZ First Foundation is at the heart of a trial in which two men are charged by the Serious Fraud Office with obtaining by deception. The donations were not declared to the Electoral Commission as could be expected if received by a political party.

Among those who gave generously and were interviewed by the SFO for the evidence read out in court this week are rich listers such as Waiheke’s Spencer Family, Andrew Bagnall, Kent Baigent, Sir Peter Vela, Tony Van Den Brink, Aaron Bhatnagar, Brendan Lindsay, Ian Ross and a clutch of stud farm owners and natural products business people. 

Some of these donors first featured in an investigation by RNZ in late 2019 and early 2020, which revealed the existence of the foundation.

In evidence now presented in court, some donors told investigators they had been determined that their donations should remain anonymous. Several sought legal advice or assurances from NZ First figures before splitting their totals of up to $50,000 into multiple donations just below the $15,000.01 threshold that would require their names to be declared to the Electoral Commission. 

Most said they did not know their donations were going into an account for the NZ First Foundation rather than directly to the NZ First Party – and many did not care, as long as the money went to Winston Peters and the NZ First cause, helped promote their policies to boost the thoroughbred racing industry or helped limit regulations on natural health products.

The Crown case is that the two men, who are not elected party officials or members, obtained control of the donation funds by deception and dispensed the monies without direct approval of elected party officials. 

The men’s identities are suppressed until a further hearing. They argue no offence occurred and that money donated for NZ First ended up being spent for NZ First purposes.

Crown lawyers had “expressed a preference” to Justice Pheroze Jagose this week that the donor witnesses’ identities be suppressed, but he declined to do so.

The donors’ evidence showed former NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell played a central role in rainmaking for the party among the thoroughbred racing community.

Owners of the Trelawney Stud in Cambridge, Brent and Cherry Taylor, hosted a lunch for racing industry figures that Mitchell orchestrated, to meet and hear from Winston Peters. An email about the event told attendees: “We need to strongly support Winston Peters going back into a position of power to being our racing minister and we need money to help get New Zealand First in.”

Mitchell reported back to Cherry Taylor soon afterwards that the lunch raised $56,000 “not including Sir Patrick, Sir Peter or David Ellis.” Another note filed in evidence said of Ellis, founder of Te Akau Racing, that it was understood “David is making a monthly donation to NZ First.”

Host Brent Taylor donated $15,000. He said he had talked to Peters at the lunch but “we don’t talk money”.

Sir Peter Vela‘s evidence said he was not at the Trelawney Stud lunch but agreed to donate $15,000 in 2017 and then a further $15,000 after a function in 2019 with Peters that David Ellis organised at Vela’s Pencarrow Stud. Vela had not heard of the nominated bank accounts to send his money to. “My intention was to make a donation to the NZ First  cause. I do not have a problem with my donation going to [another NZ First linked account]. My intention was whatever the money was put to, that it be used for the NZ First party.”

Another attendee, Chris Campin of Chequers Stud, donated $1000 after the lunch. “I do not enjoy giving money away,” he said.

His bank account transaction record, shown in court, listed: Particulars “NZ First”; Code “Donation”; and Reference “Had to”.

Joan Egan, retired of Hamilton, donated $15,000 after receiving an email appeal. She asked what others in the horse racing industry were giving and talked to Brent Taylor, who said he was donating $15,000. “I said ‘That’ll do me’ and that was it’.” She said in evidence it was “purely to help Winston Peters and his promise to look into the racing industry”.

Well known racing car driver and horse breeder Kent Baigent of Karaka had two of his trusts donate $10,000 in April and September 2017 and he made a personal donation of $15,000 in September 2017. “I had a meal with Winston Peters. Winston did not discuss anything about donations and funds. Later on I met Clayton Mitchell and had discussions about donations.” Baigent saw no difference between the money going to New Zealand First or to the foundation. “It is all part of the cause. I donated to the cause.”

Andrew Bagnall, another racing car driver and director of the Segoura private investment company told the SFO: “Kent Baigent was looking for support around various political views. I quite like some of the causes New Zealand First was promoting. Kent and I met Clayton Mitchell.”

He donated $10,000 on July 4, 2017 from a personal account, a further $12,000 from one trust, $14,000 from another trust and $13,500 from a third over two days.

Bagnall never discussed the amounts with NZ First or anyone other than other trustees. “I would not have donated anything from any of the [entities] that would have required public disclosure. I try to fly very much under the radar.”

When Bagnall became aware of the SFO inquiry in 2020, he rang Clayton Mitchell but was told something like: “It’s modelled on the National Party, so there are no issues.”

Nelson Schick, the co-owner of Windsor Park Stud near Karapiro, made two donations of $15,000 and $5,000 to the party in 2017. “When I say the party I mean Winston Peters. It is not for anything else but for Winston Peters and how he felt best to achieve these goals…. He really is the full deal.” Schick was unaware of the details of the accounts he sent the money to, provided to him by one of the defendants in 2017 and by David Ellis for a 2019 donation of a further $10,000. He was unconcerned. “To me, they are all one and the same thing. It’s just a slightly different label.”

Tony Van den Brink, president of the Auckland polo club and a Karaka-based director of the Van den Brink Group, decided in 2017 to make an anonymous donation to New Zealand First in 2017 for a total of $50,000. “I wanted it to be anonymous because I would rather not have the donation public. Three of his businesses separately donated $14,000 each and one $8000, with the money going to an account given to him by Kent Baigent, a friend who had a connection to Clayton Mitchell.

Peters went to Van den Brink’s house for lunch. “He never mentioned a word about the donation, and that surprised me.”

Van den Brink said in evidence: “I was not happy with National [the government at the time] and I thought having Winston Peters in would be a handbrake on National if they went in. Put Winston Peters in Parliament with a substantial number of seats and make him Kingmaker – and it did.”  

He said he donated within the rules and when he found out about the NZ First Foundation he thought: “Well that’s their problem.”

His son, Karl Van den Brink who is managing director of the VDB Group, said the donations were made under $15,000 because “we are a private family, a private business, and we did not want to be headlined as making donations to political parties”.

Brendan Lindsay, who with his wife Jo, sold the Sistema business for half a billion dollars, and is now involved in the bloodstock industry met Winston Peters, Shayne Jones and Clayton Mitchell at a Tauranga Club lunch in May 2017 after a suggestion by Brent Taylor. The Lindsays later that month gave two lots of $15,000 to the foundation account, repeating those sums in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, Lindsay’s assistant had to prompt Clayton Mitchell to see if the donations had been received before receiving a note of thanks.

Ian Ross, a Karaka company director, was asked in May 2017 by Tony Van den Brink to donate to NZ First. “Tony asked if we could be part of a team to get some people to make a donation. I asked how much they wanted. He said each person or company was going to give $50,000. I and my father did it. We must have had some money in the bank, otherwise he wouldn’t have done it.”

Five different entities, Ross Properties Ltd, Karaka Harbourside Estate Ltd, IR and JC Ross Partnership, Ross Developments 2004 and Takanini Properties, made $10,000 donations.

“They got $50,000 and that was it,” he told the SFO. 

Berridge Spencer, director of Clime Asset Management Ltd and one of the high profile Waiheke Spencer family, said he donated $12,500 to NZ First in July 2017, as did his wife Olivia, sister Mertsi and her husband Jeffrey Scrimgeour, through their lawyers Martelli McKegg. He was interested in NZ First’s provincial development policies, his brother-in-law backed its defence policy and his wife came from a horse racing family. “We had a discussion as a family and decided what we wanted to do.”

The Spencer group wanted to be under the $15,000 figure to protect its privacy.

Aaron Bhatnagar, a business and technology investor, was put in touch with Clayton Mitchell by a mutual contact Martyn Levy and they lunched at Auckland’s Northern Club in August 2017. “In 2017, Levy and I both travelled to Israel on a business and cultural trip. I was disappointed with comments made by Murray McCully about Israel and wanted to support an Israel supporting party. “

Bhatnagar’s evidence said Mitchell gave details for donating on a piece of paper. Bhatnagar noticed when he got home the request was for a donation to the foundation and while he had not heard of it and Mitchell had not mentioned it, or how it worked, “I had made donations before and was aware of disclosure… I recall SFO enquiries, I messaged Mitchell to confirm I knew I had donated to the NZ First Foundation, not NZ First.” 

Ron Woodrow, chief executive of Black Diamond Technology, made two 2016 donations of $4999 and $9998 and wanted the donation kept confidential because “I remember some scandals about NZ First going back 10 years ago and was very concerned that they had their act together and were not going to allow the media to have access to this.”

Woodrow had dinner with Peters and adviser Api Dawson to discuss immigration and after making the donations to an NZ First associated account, was assured by Dawson “absolutely it will remain 100 percent confidential”.

In court, Dawson said he had checked that confidentiality assurance before going back to Woodrow. “I’m sure someone will have told me. More than likely Winston.”

In 2017 Woodrow made a further $4999 donation to an account linked to NZ First.

On Thursday in court, evidence was read from statements by four business people from the natural health products industry who made donations to the foundation.

Adam Ryan, of Hastings, the managing director of Nutrisearch said he wanted to support the party because he disagreed with a Natural Health Bill the National Party government was looking to introduce. Ryan did some research to see which parities would not support it and NZ First indicated it was against.

After talking to a local lobbyist, he received payment instructions from one of the defendants in the current case and in July 2017 paid $2500 to the foundation account, adding a further $4000 through regular automatic payments.

Daniel King, the former owner of About Health supplements told the SFO he supported NZ First as “they said sensible things regarding my industry at the time”. He had met Peters some time earlier when lobbying for his industry. In emails to Peters, King complained “buerocrats (sic) are trying to regulate NZ as if we are an island”.

In June 2017 he donated $10,000 to the foundation account and again from November a further $2500.

Patrick Fahy, managing director of Nature’s Sunshine Products, also gave $2500 around that time

“I am the chairman of industry group Natural Health alliance, and my company is a signatory member. As a group we were interested in supporting any political party who were applying common sense to applying regulations to the natural health sector. He agreed on $10,000 between industry players but never had personal contact with anyone from either the NZ First Party or Foundation.

Patrick Sloan, who owns and operates a number of healthcare companies, gave $5000 to the foundation account, provided to him by one of the defendants, in July 2018. “I wanted to lobby Parliament as I was against the Natural Health Bill.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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