SFO has more tapes from Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges

Policy

MP who first complained to police about secret and broken political donations finally finds himself in the High Court, and his SFO accusers say they have more secret records with his former leader

Four years after National MP Jami-Lee Ross publicly released a secret recording of a call with his party leader Simon Bridges – and lit a fuse for a crackdown on hidden political donations – the Serious Fraud Office is set to present the contents of at least two other such recordings at Ross’s criminal trial.

“These are conversations which Mr Ross has not made public,” SFO lawyer John Dixon QC told the High Court on Monday.

Dixon said the taped conversations dated back to September 2018 and in one, Ross told Bridges of a $100,000 donation to the party: “This donation has not been reported correctly…these donations have not not been treated in a manner consistent with the Elections Act.”

In another taped chat, Ross spoke again about that $100,000 donation from 2018 and said, “I have been asked to participate in large donations and Chinese interests that have not been properly declared.” .

Ross has publicly claimed it was Bridges who asked him to do it.

But the Crown instead says Ross’s own words on the taped conversations are “evidence of Mr. Ross’ knowing involvement in the deception”.

Now Bridges, a former crown attorney, will be among the crown witnesses who will testify about Ross and his three co-defendants in connection with two $100,000 donations to National. The others are Auckland businessman Yikun Zhang, his right-hand man Colin Zheng and Zheng’s twin brother Joe.

The men pleaded not guilty to two charges of deceptively obtaining the donations, which came from accounts linked to Zhang, and in one case possibly Colin Zheng, but were paid to what the Crown calls “donors.” fictitious” from the Chinese community who then paid lower, non-reportable amounts to National.

Three other defendants, whose names have been removed, also pleaded not guilty to a charge of deceptively obtaining a $35,000 Labor Party donation paid for artwork in March 2017.

Dixon said the first donation to National was arranged after a dinner Ross had with Zhang and Colin Zheng at the Parnell Cibo restaurant in May 2017.

“The Crown says that at or almost immediately after this meeting, an agreement was reached that: Mr. Zhang (or Zhang and Zheng) would donate $100,000 to the National Party; but other people would be proposed as nominal donors so that the identity of the true donor(s) would not be disclosed.”

The next day, Zhang arranged with his sister Shaona in China to send $50,000 to Colin Zheng and, according to the Crown, Zheng then used this money to pay the first three batches of $14,000 each into the accounts of the ” fictitious donors”. Colin Zheng then had another $98,000 sent to himself from his father’s bank account in China and split it up for other bogus donors to pass on.

Colin Zheng later wrote Ross “they will all follow the law” and added a smiley face emoji.

Zheng openly told fictitious donors in June 2017 that Zhang, whom he referred to as “the association president” or “the president,” was supposed to donate money to National, but a transaction was too high and that ‘registration would be required’. So the money would be sent “through your account to the National Party to make it work”.

It was Ross who, in May 2018, provided the names of the fake donors to the National Party for its records. Since none exceeded $15,000, donor details were not included in the party’s statement of donations.

Yikun Zhang with Simon Bridges in another undated meeting. Photo: Supplied

Zhang’s second $100,000 donation to National, in mid-2018, followed another dinner – this time Ross took Simon Bridges to Yikun Zhang’s Remuera home.

Ross sent Bridges a long text informing him before dinner, noting that “Mr. Zhang is very wealthy, although the exact source of his wealth in China is not well known.”

Ross mentions angling Zhang for a royal honor and his surprise that National didn’t give him one on New Year’s. the 2018 Queen for her services to China-New Zealand relations and the Chinese community.)

“He supports both sides of politics, but he would be closer to us,” Ross wrote. “Good boy [Peter, National’s president] and Jian [Yang, former Chinese spy trainer and ex National MP] and I invested a lot of time in the relationship.”

And Ross has social advice for his boss: “He’ll probably want to drink red wine with you. He can say they’re happy to support you anytime and just let them know.”

Dixon QC told the court Bridges would give evidence to the Crown that a week later he met Zhang and Zheng at another national fundraiser and they offered to donate $100,000 .

The SFO alleges that Ross, Zhang and Zheng then made another deal to have Zhang’s $100,000 contributed by other nominal donors in smaller amounts.

This money, Dixon says, was collected by the two businessmen who sent cartons of New Zealand wine to China, sold them and transferred the money first to Zhang’s sister, then back again. in New Zealand. The bogus donors received the National Party’s Ross’ Botany electorate bank account.

The Crown says Ross gave National the list of fake donors, later telling police he got the names from “an agent” of the real donor who didn’t speak English. “The Crown says this is a clear acknowledgment that Mr. Ross knew or believed that Mr. Zhang was the true donor.”

At the end of the Crown’s opening statement outlining his case, Ross, through his attorney Hannah Stuart, was given a brief opportunity to present his views to the court.

Stuart said Ross was closely involved with the Chinese community of his botanic constituency, including the General Association of Chao Shan, led by Zhang. Ross agreed that Botany’s national electorate received “eight donations each below the threshold” in 2017 and seven in 2018, but “it was not a surprise to Mr. Ross as Chao Shan members reported that they would lend their support.”

Ross did not dispute that he would have routinely informed donors that any donation over $15,000 should be disclosed.

But Stuart said his client had no discussions with any of the defendants or the Chao Shan Association about splitting a large donation into smaller amounts to avoid disclosure.

When Ross went public in October 2018 against Bridges, revealing details of the donations, he claimed Bridges ordered him to do an unlawful act.

In court, Ross distanced himself from any plans to break up the donations. Stuart said such methods predate Ross’s own dealings with Zhang and Zheng. “They had clearly adopted this pattern before – when donating to the Labor Party.” (Zhang bought the five artworks as a donation to Labor in March 2017, two months before the first nationwide donation of $100,000 was scheduled.)

She said “both men were sophisticated and knowledgeable about New Zealand politics” and that Ross had no involvement in how they might have structured their donations.

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