Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges were both playing for keeps when they fell out in 2018, leading to a political donations scandal that has ensnared both major parties.

“Surreptitious” recordings made by Ross of two further conversations between the pair were aired at the High Court political donations trial on Wednesday and they showed in detail the behind-the-scenes, high wire act the two former National Party mates engaged in that year.

Both knew what might and did eventuate– public allegations of corruption, sexual misconduct, disloyalty – but as tensions built, neither would pull back.

The tapes provided new details to the known sequence of events from that year’s National Party meltdown:

Just after becoming National leader, Bridges denied Ross a coveted Opposition role, costing the MP money and influence and leaving him convinced he’d been “f***ed over big time”

Ross publicly “sucked it up” but privately “loathed” the man who he’d just helped put into the National Party leadership job.

Ross undermined Bridges, leaking the leader’s expenses to Newshub, secretly taping a phone conversation and then two in-person meetings, and briefing against him in caucus and beyond.

Initially Ross wasn’t suspected of the leak, and as part of the Bridges’ leadership team joined in discussions about trying to track down the culprit.

By September, Bridges decided Ross had to go from the front bench and his portfolio roles – citing the undermining and taping and, crucially, complaints from four women of sexual misconduct at Parliament.

Ross threatened to go “kamikaze” – going public on a $100,000 donation National hadn’t declared, promising to take Bridges down with him.

Bridges didn’t blink, told the MP he should be in “zero doubt” that “that’s just not going to be an issue for me in all this” when deciding his fate. He urged Ross to take his destiny into his own hands, move to the backbench and take some time out.

Ross demanded details of the sexual misconduct allegations against him, requesting ‘natural justice’.

Bridges flatly declined, saying if that process was to be started, the number of complainants would likely go “from four or five to 15”. 

Bridges demoted him.

Ross followed through with issuing his tape recording, the public accusation that Bridges had committed a corrupt practice over the donation and laying a police complaint dobbing in the leader and the National Party.

All of which led to the Serious Fraud Office prosecution of Ross and three others associated with donations to National and of three more people connected with donations to Labour, which is underway at the High Court at Auckland.  All seven have pleaded not guilty to charges of obtaining by deception.

Ross, businessmen Yikun Zhang, Colin Zheng and Joe Zheng are charged over two donations of $100,000 to National, and the three Chinese defendants and three other people with name suppression face charges over a net $35,000 donation to Labour.

Bridges was called to give evidence for the Crown, saying it was untrue that he had asked Ross to collect one of the $100,000 donations in a manner that would defeat legal requirements to identify donors.

He denied that he had discussed the donation at a “convivial” dinner arranged through Ross at another accused, Yikun Zhang’s house, or that he later knew anything underhand had occurred in lodging the donation with National.

Bridges, National’s leader from February 2018 until May 2020, said he did not contemplate for a moment that anything was less than above board when the MP’s Botany electorate bank account was used to receive $100,000 in donations that had been offered to Bridges at a fundraising event. The money had been broken up into seven separate donations of $14,000, each falling under the $15,000 Electoral Act threshold requiring the names of donors to be declared by the party.

Bridges said he had been told at the National fundraiser by Yikun Zhang and Colin Zheng that they would make a $100,000 donation. He informed Ross, who as Botany MP knew both men through the Chinese community, about the “good news” and left it with Ross and the party to make arrangements.

Crown lawyer Paul Wicks QC asked Bridges if he had anything further to do with that potential $100,000 donation. 

“No, nothing.”

Wicks: “Did you ever discuss with Mr Ross about how donations might be declared or handled?”


Wicks: “Ever discuss splitting donations up?”


Wicks: “Ever have such conversations with Yikun Zhang or Colin Zheng?”


“I backed you to the hilt. I felt you betrayed me. I shared my frustration … and actually loathing of you, in that I was not coping very well and I shared that with the people close to me.”
– Jami-Lee Ross, to Bridges

When Ross had called to confirm receipt of the money and asked him, on the first taped conversation on June 25: ‘What do you want to do with it?’, Bridges believed the MP meant ‘what do you want to spend it on?’ rather than ‘how do you want to record it?’

Told by Ross on that call that “the way they’ve done it meets the disclosure requirements”, Bridges didn’t take much notice as his assumption “has always been that we would do these things entirely right.”

Two further conversations between the men were secretly taped by Ross in Bridges’ parliamentary office on September 27, 2018 and these were played publicly in court on Wednesday for the first time. 

On the evening of September 26, Bridges had outlined to Ross his belief that the MP had been grossly disloyal and destabilising to the National Party, investigations indicated he had been the leaker of the expenses and that four women at Parliament had come forward to Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett alleging sexual misconduct by Ross.

In the first taped conversation on September 27, Ross outlines his deep feeling of betrayal at missing three roles he believed he was due from Bridges for helping get him elected as leader and highlights there was a monetary impact, not just political, as his salary had dropped and that caused stress trying to service a mortgage on a new home.

“I backed you to the hilt. I felt you betrayed me. I shared my frustration … and actually loathing of you, in that I was not coping very well and I shared that with the people close to me.”

“I’m absolutely certain I have never asked you do to anything illegal. I have absolutely no doubt about that because of my morals and integrity.”
– Simon Bridges, to Ross

Ross denies trying to destabilise Bridges’ leadership and “thoroughly reject these allegations I’ve been inappropriate around staff members.” He asks to know the details of those allegations, under natural justice.

He tells Bridges of the secret phone recording from June. “If I have to lose my career then I have no option but to go down fighting. I cannot go to the backbench. I’m not going to go there willingly.”

“You are going to have a very public fight. Breaches of the Electoral Act are very f***ing serious.”

Ross’s solution is that they both pull back – from sacking or from a public fight – and leave him in his position on the front bench.  “I would not do anything outward against you and I don’t expect anything to come my way either.”

But Bridges doesn’t budge. He denies ever committing to offering Ross the well paid role of senior whip, or of shadow leader of the house.

On the donation: “I’m absolutely certain I have never asked you do to anything illegal. I have absolutely no doubt about that because of my morals and integrity.”

Turning to the sexual misconduct allegations, the leader is blunt: “There are things that have come forward that I cannot now unknow.”  He says the misconduct evidence is “systematic and prolonged over time.”

“Forget it’s Simon Bridges as the leader. If it was Bill English, John Key, Mark Mitchell, Judith Collins. They would have to do something about it.”

Ross argues again for natural justice, the right to find out who is accusing him and of what.

Bridges: “That’s not going to happen… In all honesty Jami-Lee, if I give you natural justice on these issues it would not be four or five. It would be 15.”

His proposed action against Ross was not personal but “solely on what is in National’s interest”.

Ross should take charge of his own destiny and go to the backbench himself. “There’s no shame in it. I think you’ll be surprised in the way it can be handled very well.

“You say it’s the end of your career, but I think there’s a definite way forward for you. I could name ministers who had much more public disgraces, who have come back from much worse.”

Bridges adds: “My current, very clear information is if you don’t take things into your own hands, I will have to.”

During the second meeting that day that Ross taped, Bridges tells the MP he can deny all he likes, but “you know you have to acknowledge it’s correct.”

Jami-Lee Ross made his allegations against National and Simon Bridges public on October 16, 2018. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Ross’ defence lawyer Ron Mansfield QC put it to Bridges that there were similarities between him and Ross – both entered Parliament between 2008 and 2011, were young, had been Young Nationals, had entered politics early and were ambitious.

After Ross and fellow MP Todd McClay had done the numbers for Bridges’ leadership success in 2018, Mansfield said, “you had effectively betrayed that political alliance you had with Mr Ross … You knew he wanted to be Shadow Leader of the House.”

Bridges denied short-changing Ross, having made him Number 8 on the front bench and giving him two of Bridges’ favoured portfolio areas, transport and infrastructure. He said seniority was in the eye of the beholder. “I would take being in a Cabinet-winning position any day over being senior whip.

“I thought, objectively, that he would be very happy with the positions he received.”

By losing the role of senior whip, Mansfield said, Ross’ salary fell by $53,000 a year.  “He did not get the sexy role he was after, he takes a salary drop so you can get people in these roles you needed to get into these roles.”

Mansfield showed the court texts between Ross and Bridges in which the MP told his leader he was upset over the job allocations. “My head says ‘suck it up’, my heart says ‘Go kamikaze.’ Head wins – I’ll suck it up.”

Bridges replies: “Thank you Jami-Lee. You won’t regret it.”

In another text exchange the deputy leader Paula Bennett tells Ross that Bridges had given him a front-bench, prime spot and he would be one of the biggest stories of the reshuffle. “Give him a break.”

Ross texts: “I only agreed to not have Leader of the House to fix his Gerry [Brownlee] problem.”

Mansfield told Bridges it must have been obvious that from the point of the reshuffle on, Ross’s loyalty had been lost.

Bridges: “I did not see that until months later .. I certainly accept that at some point in time Jami-Lee Ross absolutely turned.”

The lawyer took Bridges through concerns over Ross’ mental health issues ahead of their September meeting and before Ross’ October public statements on the donations.

Bridges said at some point in August or September he had talked to Ross’ psychiatrist, and had spoken to Ross’ then-wife Lucy Schwaner. 

Mansfield: “Not only was he deeply disloyal, as far as you were concerned, he was also deeply unwell.”

Bridges: “As a lay person I accept he had real problems and I guess the walls were closing in.”

When Bridges had raised the disloyalty, leak and sexual misconduct issues with Ross in late September, and said he would demote him, Mansfield said, “you would have known that for such an ambitious man as Mr Ross that would have been a significant event. It would have been devastating to him.”

Bridges said he had to balance Ross’ wellbeing against the needs and safety of National’s caucus and staff at Parliament. 

Mansfield: “I’m not suggesting it is designed to cause harm to his mental health. It was a decision made on information you had as leader.”

When Ross threatened to go public on donations, he was trying to give as good as he got, using veiled threats about causing Bridges political damage, the lawyer said.

Bridges: “That was certainly the outcome with regard to me.”

Mansfield suggested the allegations that Ross ended up making publicly about what Bridges and he had done were untrue. “It seemed he was making these statements because he wanted to undermine you as leader.

“This was Mr Ross going full kamikaze, wasn’t it?”

Bridges: “Yes, it was.”

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

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