The seven-week trial of seven defendants for concealing large donations to the Labour and National parties ends with its central character saying his original allegations were wholly unreliable. Verdicts are expected within three weeks.
Among the many claims and counter-claims, conspiracies, complexities, Chinese translations, inferences and allegations a High Court judge will now sift through in deciding the political donations case, there lies one unusual standoff.
Crown prosecutors say the former National MP Jami-Lee Ross – who sparked the multi-year fraud inquiry with public allegations in 2018 and who ended up being charged with the crime – told the truth.
But Ross’ own defence lawyer says he lied, and lied and lied back then. He had been consumed by an irrational political vendetta against then-National leader Simon Bridges, had acute mental health issues, and his admissions about his own involvement in a $100,000 donations scam are “entirely unreliable”.
The lawyer, Ron Mansfield QC, acknowledged it was rare for a defendant’s counsel to stand in court and say that person has lied. But “I do”.
“It’s apparent from the evidence.”
Mansfield was the last of eight defence lawyers to give closing addresses at the end of the trial against Ross, businessmen Yikun Zhang, Colin Zheng and Joe Zheng, plus three defendants who have name suppression, on charges of obtaining by deception.
The case relates to a donation to the Labour Party in 2017 of $60,000, which netted it about $35,000, and two $100,000 donations to National in 2017 and 2018. In all three instances, the Crown alleges the large sums were broken up into smaller amounts beneath electoral law disclosure limits, and instead ‘transmitted’ to the parties via ‘sham donors’.
In its closing address, the Crown said all those who helped in what it says was a fraudulent scheme to keep the major donor, Zhang’s name from being made public, had lied. All except Ross. The Crown case is that Ross’ self-taped conversations with Bridges, two media conferences and a complaint interview to the police implicated himself by admitting he had been involved.
In closing for Ross before Justice Ian Gault, Mansfield said of the Crown’s claims: “Whilst they had on the face of it what appeared to be an admission by Mr Ross to be party to this particular fraud, when you investigate the background behind those admissions it is perfectly clear that the admissions themselves are simply unreliable.”
That was because Ross had felt betrayed by Bridges’ allocation of National caucus jobs and when confronted with further demotion for his disloyalty, and coupled with acute mental health distress, “was prepared to lie to save his position within the National Party and the House. Then, when that wasn’t possible, to lie in order to further his desire for revenge against Mr Bridges.
“If he was to go down, so was Mr Bridges.”
The taped conversations and media and police statements were acts of desperation. “The only way to take Mr Bridges down was to take himself down also, and that’s what he did. To take down Simon Bridges, Mr Ross obviously had to involve himself in said fraud.”
Mansfield said while the judge should not ignore the statements made by Ross, such evidence could only be relied on if it was considered reliable. The underlying motive behind someone making such claims was “incredibly important”.
“The reality is that when he made that admission he cared little about himself and any admission against his own interests. It’s clear he couldn’t care less about what it meant for himself.
“There was nothing left to lose. That motive makes the statements made by Mr Ross at this time and earlier entirely unreliable. The motive drives the lie that he’s telling and he cares not the damage it does himself, but only for the damage to Mr Bridges.”
Mansfield ran through a series of lies Ross had told through the relevant period in 2018, the year of the $100,000 donation he made public that October.
He had lied in telling Bridges after the caucus job allocation that he would “suck it up”, despite his heart telling him to go ‘Kamikaze’. “This is the first lie. The head didn’t win. The heart won.”
Ross later denied being the leaker of Bridges’ travel expenses to the media. “He continued to deny being the source of the leak, knowing full well as this court does, that he was.”
He then resorted to making the claim directly to Bridges in the taped conversations, and then to the media, public and police, that Bridges had instructed him to have the $100,000 donation divided up. “He resorted to making a claim against Mr Bridges which he knew was not true.”
When he spoke to media on October 16, 2018, Ross claimed he had medical advice clearing him to work and make decisions. “That was also a lie.”
“There were lies throughout designed to damage Mr Bridges, as part of a significant lie of Mr Bridges being involved in a fraudulent scheme.”
But all through this, Mansfield, said, Ross had had no knowledge of such a fraudulent scheme. He made no gain, there was no evidence from SFO documents or communications produced in court that Ross had instructed anyone to behave illegally or advised on such a scheme.
“There has been no evidence of any statements between co-conspirators suggesting the involvement of Mr Ross. If the Serious Fraud Office could point to co-conspirators referring to Mr Ross they would have included it,” he told Justice Gault.
While the Crown attempted to paint Ross as the political insider in the National case, he was instead the legal outlier.
The prosecution tried to rely on what Ross claimed about the 2018 donation to “drive home his knowledge” of the 2017 donation. But the evidence in court showed that Zhang, Zheng and Zheng had deployed the same method of breaking a donation up into smaller amounts for Labour earlier in 2017 than that year’s donation to National.
They already knew what was required, and how to do it, Mansfield said. They did not need help, they did not need to involve Ross. Evidence presented in court shows roles and responsibilities being assigned to others, but not to Ross.
“It can’t be said Mr Ross needed to be involved to inform them, because they’d deployed the scheme prior.
“Why on earth would those deploying what they know to be a fraudulent and unlawful scheme seek to involve an individual they do not need to involve?”
Ross had sent the other defendants the Botany electorate bank account number as requested, and had received from them a list of donors he had provided to the National Party.
The Crown questioned if it was bad luck for Ross to have made up the claim about Zhang’s $100,000 donation being split up in an effort to damage Bridges – only for that to turn out to be true. But Mansfield said what was critical was when Ross might have first had reason to suspect something could be amiss.
That was not at the time of the June 2018 donation to National, or when he had passed on the list of names, but only on September 12, when the party HQ asked questions about the listed donors and officials gave him “cause to suspect all was not well with the donation”.
Mansfield said Ross’ complaint to the police but subsequently being put on trial himself had been characterised as an own goal.
“While it might appear to be an own goal that people laugh about in public and private, he wasn’t achieving an own goal because, sadly, the truth is more tragic.
“The man was acutely unwell and didn’t care. No reliance can be placed on what we now know were untrue and unreliable statements,” he said.
“There is strangely no evidence of an involvement by Mr Ross [in the fraudulent scheme] because the truth being he wasn’t involved.”
As the trial ended, Justice Gault remanded all seven defendants on bail until Friday September 30, by which time he hoped to be able to deliver his verdicts.