An apartments developer worried a ban on foreign investors could kill its business donated more than $150,000 to the New Zealand First Party when it went into government with Labour after the 2017 election.
Various entities of Conrad Properties gave the party’s fundraising foundation $155,000 in payments each under the $15,000 Electoral Commission public declaration threshold between April 2018 and January 2019.
Conrad Properties group founder Robert Holden gave evidence in the High Court trial in which two men face charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office of obtaining by deception through the New Zealand First Foundation.
The two men have name suppression. They deny the charges, saying no offence was committed and the monies raised went to NZ First purposes as intended. They point out NZ First leader Winston Peters is not on the prosecution’s list of witnesses.
Up to 43 donors are having their evidence from interviews with the SFO put to Justice Pheroze Jagose in the judge-alone hearing at the High Court at Auckland, set down for up to five weeks.
Holden, who the court heard lives in Bermuda, became aware of reports the Labour Party wanted to restrict foreign investment in residential real estate. He believed this “would have been the death knell for our business” and realised Conrad would need to “engage with the government to explain why this would be detrimental”.
Through a third party, Conrad hired one of the defendants to lobby on the issue. Holden said the defendant was careful to keep the lobbying and NZ First Foundation roles separate. “That was how he worked,” but Holden later discussed with that defendant and NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell helping out the party financially.
Holden said he had been a fundraiser himself for the Sea Shepherd environmental group and could see NZ First had been putting much effort into raising relatively low thousands of dollars in donations. “My 16 to 17 years of fundraising was on a very different level and I thought I could help NZ First to fix systems.”
He recalled that the defendant he engaged had said “everything NZ First does is straight up and down, based on the National Party model” and “I remember getting some comfort from the fact”.
Holden did not know what the foundation was, or that the defendant was involved directly.
However he decided Conrad would make regular donations under the $15,000 declaration threshold to assist the party develop a long-term capital fund.
He said he had no issue with some of that donation being taken by the party to deal with short-term financial issues, as it had an element of discretion. “Long term the intention was that donations would go to the fund I believed was being established.”
Eventually he concluded NZ First was not going to be able to achieve that, and Conrad faced its own challenges, including an emergency restructure to attempt to reduce costs. It suspended its regular, repeated donations schedule and went onto an ad hoc basis.
All up, between April 2018, after the NZ First-Labour government came into office, until January 2019, Conrad donated $155,000 to the foundation. The funds came from entities within the Conrad group, including Equity Growth Limited, Edgware Trust, Abbey Trust and Bayswater Trust.
Holden, who at that time lived in Singapore, said he was not involved in identifying which entities would make payments. “It was up to the people who I delegated that responsibility to.
“I operate on a macro level where I issue an instruction and how they implement it is not up to me so long as it is within legal bounds.”
He said he’d decided to make donations as he was impressed with the two defendants. “After a preamble of a meeting with [defendant 1] and [defendant 2] and me I thought they were really good guys … I thought they wanted to make a difference. Also I had always liked Winston Peters and followed him.”
* In June 2018, Stuff reported that Trade and Economic Development Minister David Parker announced plans for the foreign buyer ban had been relaxed to allow investors to buy apartments after pleas for tweaks poured into Parliament before the submissions deadline earlier this year. The select committee considering the bill recommended developers still have access to enough capital to fund their developments. Ultimately, when passed in August 2018, the amendment to the Overseas Investment Act stopped overseas residents from buying most types of homes, except for new apartments in large developments and multi-storey blocks. The amendment passed its third reading in the House by 63 votes to 57.