A private text message revealed in the High Court shows the depth of betrayal felt by former National MP Jami-Lee Ross soon after helping Simon Bridges win the party leadership in 2018.
Ross had his eyes on three top roles in the National caucus but missed all three when Bridges took over from Bill English.
He texted his electorate secretary in Botany on March 18, 2018:
“I got f***ed over pretty big time by a guy that I thought was a mate and helped a lot. Was promised Leader of the House – taken away; Promised chief whip – taken away; Promised housing – taken away.
“I was close to walking away. He had to beg me not to. You’ll see me announced at Number 8 and transport.”
Three months later, Ross was using two iPhones to secretly tape a conversation with Bridges in which they discussed a $100,000 donation a Chinese businessman had promised to Bridges and that had been paid into Ross’ Botany electorate account of the National Party.
The text – and a replay of the phone conversation – were made public in the political donations trial now under way in the High Court at Auckland that directly resulted from allegations Ross made against Bridges and National in October 2018 after he fell out spectacularly with the leader over the course of the year.
In a hastily arranged press conference at Parliament on October 16, Ross accused Bridges of committing a corrupt practice in his donations return to the Electoral Commission for the Tauranga electorate in the 2017 general election. He also accused National of knowingly allowing a donation of $100,000 in June 2018 from a Chinese businessman to be broken up into amounts not declarable under the law and submitted by seven other individuals.
Ross complained to Wellington police the next day, then experienced mental health issues including going missing and being admitted to hospital. He was suspended from National, became an independent MP, and ended up being one of four people (not including Bridges or National officials) charged by the Serious Fraud Office with obtaining by deception. He formed a new party but failed to retain the Botany seat in 2020.
In the High Court on Monday, a video interview Ross gave inside the Wellington police station before appearing in front of media cameras was played in evidence.
A picture emerged of Ross becoming aware that Bridges’ 2017 Tauranga donations had issues when he and MP Todd McClay were working to boost Bridges’ chances of succeeding Bill English in the top job.
Ross told Detective Senior Sergeant James Patea he and McClay advised Bridges two donations had not been listed correctly on the return to the Electoral Commission and could be problems for him.
One for $10,000 was listed as having been from the ‘Cathedral Club’. Ross knew it was not a legal entity but rather a political lunch and discussion group of which he had once been an attendee, and that the address listed was that of Auckland rich lister Aaron Bhatnagar.
“Todd and I suggested to Simon he needed to tidy it up, because having a false name on there would not look good.”
The other donation in question, Ross told police, was for $14,000 from a registered Hawkes Bay company but “apparently there are links to the Exclusive Brethren” and “that may be why [it] was taken off”.
Bridges’ electorate submitted an amended donations return for 2017 excluding those two entries, and cutting received funds by $24,000.
In the video interview, Ross details the second of his allegations – that a $100,000 donation promised by businessman Yikun Zhang to Bridges at a fundraising event held by fellow MP Paul Goldsmith was received in the Botany electorate bank account in seven sums of $14,000 to evade Electoral Act requirements for revealing the name of a donor and the existence of a donation over $30,000.
He re-reads to police his media statement from Parliament the day earlier in which he said Bridges had instructed him on a phone call on May 21, 2018, to “collect” the promised $100,000. Ross claims he received the list of names for the $14,000 donors and handed that to party officials.
When questions were asked from party headquarters about those individuals’ addresses not matching electoral rolls, Ross says he thought to himself: “Hmmm, there’s some political danger in this. This is a bit dodgy, It’s potentially a breach of the law, I felt uncomfortable about it.”
He had not taped the call with Bridges from May 21 but decided to call him on June 25 and record the conversation.
“I needed to tell him the money was in and I needed to have some evidence if this comes back to bite the party in the backside – and unfortunately there has been a bit of a history of large donations biting a party in the backside,” Ross tells the policeman.
“The donation came into the Botany account. There’s a direct link back to me. If shit hit the fan it would have all landed on me, whereas, on May 21 I was asked by Simon Bridges to go and collect the donation.”
He says he had been with Bridges at a dinner at Zhang’s Remuera home on May 14 as he knew Zhang and his colleagues at the Chao Shan General Association, which had made donations to Labour and National across multiple electorates.
He knew Zhang and his associate and fellow defendant in the trial Colin Zheng. Zheng had provided Ross the list of seven names of the $14,000 donors. “I knew that they were going through [to] the Botany account. I wanted to ensure there was evidence that the party leader asked me to do this.”
Ross said he was on speakerphone and recorded the conversation with Bridges on another iPhone. While he had made the contents public in October 2018, the court had the benefit of hearing it all again, including the now infamous quip by Ross that two Chinese MPs for National would be better than two Indian members, and an observation by Bridges that MP Maureen Pugh was “fucking useless”.
The tape ends with Bridges telling Ross of the donation: “That’s awesome, man.”
Detective Senior Sergeant Patea then asked Ross if he believed the seven separate donations in fact came from Yikun Zhang.
“Yes, because on May 21 Simon Bridges was offered $100,000 at the Paul Goldsmith fundraiser” and because on the taped call on June 25, Ross “was telling him that the broken down donations adding up to $100,000 was now in”.
Asked what he had been thinking when he undertook the taping of his leader, Ross said: “When I said ‘do you recall this, do you recall this?’ and even him saying ‘fantastic’ – that’s confirmation that he was involved and [had] asked.
“I could smell danger, political danger but actually legal danger too.”
Ross summed up his view of the whole issue: “The bottom line is $100,000 was offered to Simon Bridges. He knew where it was coming from. He sits on the board of the party. He knew that that donation was there. I believe the Electoral Act has been breached probably more by the National Party, by that donation not being declared. But Simon Bridges knew all about it.”
The text he sent to his Botany electorate agent Katja Kershaw came out when she gave evidence on Monday afternoon. She first pushed back on a suggestion from Hannah Stuart, for Ross, that he had shared with her his feeling of betrayal over Bridges’ caucus appointments. But after being shown the Serious Fraud Office exhibit of the texts, Kershaw accepted he had told her of his reaction to the news. The text string shows her having texted back: “I’m so sorry Jami-Lee, but I’m not surprised either.”
Kershaw now works in the same Botany electorate office for the Parliamentary Service, but assigned to National’s new leader Christopher Luxon.
During the police interview, Ross had also given more details of the Tauranga-specific donations from 2017 that he and McClay had recommended “tidying up”.
He said he had attended at least one Cathedral Club event himself and could remember in the mid 2000s Bhatnagar, Bridges, a National Party figure Nick Albrecht, Bevan Peachey (son of a former National MP) and Tudor Clee being part of the gatherings to discuss politics and hear from speakers. It was called the Cathedral Club because it had met in the Cathedral room of the old Auckland Club.
He described it as like the modern day Northern and Wellington clubs. “There’s rooms there. There’s accommodation there. There’s very nice dining facilities there. They have very nice venues.”
The Cathedral Club could not have made a donation as it was not a legal entity and that was instantly obvious to him when he saw the donations return.
The trial of Ross, Yikun Zhang, Colin Zheng, Zheng’s twin brother Joe – and three people whose names are suppressed in connection with separate obtaining by deception charges over donations to the Labour Party, is in its third week. All defendants have pleaded not guilty.
National Party officials will give evidence on Tuesday and Bridges is scheduled to take the witness stand in person on Wednesday.