The former National Party president Peter Goodfellow overflowed with praise for Chinese community leader Yikun Zhang in recommending him for a royal honour.

“It gives me great pleasure to support the nomination of Yikun Zhang for a New Zealand royal honour, in respect of business, philanthropy, community services and NZ-China relations,” Goodfellow wrote in a letter produced in the High Court trial of Zhang and six others for obtaining by deception in connection to donations to both National and Labour. 

In the letter on National Party letterhead, dated August 17, 2017, Goodfellow even goes as far as suggesting Zhang is one of the most highly regarded Chinese in China.

“Throughout the time I have known him, Yikun has been one of the most highly regarded members of the Chinese community in New Zealand, or in China. Yikun is well known for his genuineness, aptitude and generosity.”

Goodfellow extolled Zhang’s virtues of promoting trade and sponsoring Chinese community events. “I have had the privilege of attending many of these events to see at first hand the enthusiastic involvement of large numbers of our local community and the dedicated leadership and dynamism that Yikun brings to each occasion.”

His letter of recommendation formed part of a portfolio of political endorsements sought on Zhang’s behalf by Ping Chen, an Auckland lawyer and general counsel of the Chao Shan General Association, a cultural and business group that Zhang founded.

During her evidence in the trial of Zhang, former National MP Jami-Lee Ross and five others, a WeChat exchange between Chen and Ross discussed the receipt of Goodfellow’s endorsement for Zhang’s honours nomination. 

Chen messaged the then-Botany MP: “Yikun Zhang says thanks for all the National Party support. Thank you again.”

Ross wrote back: “That’s excellent. We are all very pleased to support Yikun Zhang’s nomination. He is our brother.”

Earlier, a message from Ross had attached the online link to the nomination form for Chen to being completing.

Chen was busy on WeChat seeking more backing. She contacted another defendant, whose name is suppressed, and was told Auckland Mayor Phil Goff “has arrived at Parliament as will get it signed this evening. Shall I deliver to Yikun on Sunday or Monday?”

Goff and others also wrote letters of support for the Chao Shan association’s bid to host an international convention in Auckland. The mayor spoke of Zhang as “a successful entrepreneur and well regarded philanthropist.” 

Zhang was invested as MNZM by Governor General Patsy Reddy in 2018, but is now on trial over political donation charges. 

Labour’s Transport Minister Michael Wood had told the court the Chao Shan association “certainly wanted to have engagement with a wide variety of organisations and politicians.”

Asked by a defence lawyer if that could include approaching MPs to support someone for individual royal honours, Wood said: “It could do.”

Chen gathered all the supporting letters and the nomination form and provided it to former National MP Eric Roy.

The court had earlier heard Zhang had raised questions about why he missed out in the New Year’s Honours at the start of 2018 but his associates were told by Ross that the nomination had been quite late in the process. 

In the Crown’s opening statement in the trial, Zhang was described as “a businessman, with a range of interests in companies in the construction and export sectors. He came to New Zealand from China in approximately 2000…. As will be discussed later, Zhang received a Queen’s Birthday honour for services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community in July 2018.”

That reference to ‘later’ came in two pages in the opening statement about “the royal honours evidence.”

Crown lawyers said the Serious Fraud Office did not need to prove why the defendants went to such efforts to conceal Zhang’s identity as the original donor of the funds to both parties.

“Nevertheless, the Crown’s case against the defendants includes evidence of Mr Zhang’s application for a royal honour in 2017, and the support he received for that application at the time of the impugned conduct.

“The royal honour evidence provides a possible justification – a motive – for the defendants to engage in offending that shielded the donation and true donor from public scrutiny..

“Here Mr Zhang was receiving support from both the National and Labour Party for his application for a New Zealand Royal Honour. The support from both parties occurred in close proximity to the donations.”

The Crown alleges the timing around Ross sending the honours nomination link to Ping Chen “is important”. “It was a few weeks after Mr Ross had met Mr Zhang and [an associate and fellow defendant] Colin Zheng to discuss the 2017 National Party donation.

“It was also sent during the time that the transmitters [people whose accounts were used to move the money] were depositing the funds making up that donation (from Mr Zhang) into the National Party bank account.”

Ross provided a letter of support for the Zhang honour nomination. “The Crown case is that Mr Ross not only wrote his own letter of support, but also had a hand in acquiring Mr Goodfellow’s letter for Mr Zhang.”

The opening statement also laid out Labour’s support for the honour, including Goff co-signing the nomination form, and another of the defendants, whose name is suppressed, also providing a letter. 

“Again, the timing is of note. This was a few months after Mr Zhang had made the 2017 Labour Party donation.”

The then-Labour Party president Nigel Haworth also signed a letter of support for the nomination.

On Tuesday, in an exhaustive Crown presentation of records of 300 phone and WeChat text and audio messages, lawyer John Dixon QC said the line-by-line process of entering the material into evidence was needed as there was some doubt over the view defence lawyers could take over elements of the Crown’s case.

Dixon said Zhang’s counsel had suggested in questioning of witnesses during the trial that it was the politicians who had pursued him, but the detailed Crown evidence included messages showing in fact Zhang had pursued the politicians.

Zhang, Ross, Colin Zheng and his twin brother Joe Zheng are charged over the two $100,000 donations in 2017 and 2018 to National that were broken into smaller amounts to avoid public declaration rules, and they are also charged with three others, whose names are suppressed, over a net $35,000 donation to Labour in early 2017.  All defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges of obtaining by deception in the trial before Justice Ian Gault, which is in its fourth week.

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

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