Should voters have known about NZ First Foundation charges?

Winston Peters is justified in feeling annoyed about the timing of the SFO announcement that they had “filed a charge of ‘Obtaining by Deception’ against two defendants in the New Zealand First Foundation electoral funding case”.

The charge was filed on 23 September but the announcement was delayed due to a flurry of legal actions taken by lawyers acting for NZ First.

Tim Murphy covers the legal proceedings here – NZ First’s desperate flurry for court secrecy

As the Serious Fraud Office prepared to announce charges against two people in its New Zealand First Foundation investigation, the New Zealand First political party and one of the accused were so desperate for secrecy they launched a blizzard of legal action claiming to involve three courts at once.

Even the courts and judges appeared to struggle to keep up with applications being sought, withdrawn, granted, appealed and delayed as New Zealand First and Co tried to stop the news of the “obtaining by deception” charges, which carry penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment, from being made public.

In the end, the public’s right to know such information in the lead-up to the election won the day.

While the timing is tough on Peters and NZ First, do voters have a right to know about the charges? Suppressing this information from voters until after the election may have been a worse option. Murphy also tweeted:

With Peters and NZ First so heavily involved in this it is impossible to separate the Party from the Foundation.

Peters has attempted to do this, saying “today’s decision by the Serious Fraud Office exonerates the New Zealand First Party of any electoral law breaches”. It doesn’t exonerate anyone.

As the people being charged aren’t current MPs or candidates it seems fair to suppress their names for now, but it’s ridiculous claiming it has nothing to do with the Party. The Foundation was set up by the Party for the Party.

Andrew Geddis via RNZ: NZ First Foundation arrangement ‘unprecedented’ – law expert

The New Zealand First Foundation arrangement with the New Zealand First Party “is completely unprecedented,” law expert Professor Andrew Geddis told Checkpoint.

“The NZ First Party has tried to draw a distinction… between its foundation and the National Party, which has a foundation as well. But the National Party foundation is run completely in line with electoral law, and is simply a way of gaining long term donations which are then invested,” Professor Geddis said.

“This was a foundation where people would put money into the [NZ First] foundation rather than give it directly to the party. Because it was put into the foundation it wasn’t being declared to the Electoral Commission as the law required, and then the money was being spent on New Zealand First Party activities rather than the party spending its own money.

“So it was like a shadow parallel funding structure that paid no attention to electoral law, even though it ought to have.

“It’s very hard to say how these two things can be separate, when it was the New Zealand First Party that decided it wanted to set this thing up, and the NZ First Party benefited from the NZ First Foundation paying all its bills,” Professor Geddis told Checkpoint. 

“So I don’t care what technical legalities you throw at it, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s probably a duck.”

In response to Peters’ warning the case cannot be discussed as it is sub judice, Professor Geddis said: 

“We can’t talk about the people who has been charged, we can’t speculate on that because there’s name suppression, but in terms of discussing the outline of the case, discussing the background facts and so on, those are all in the public record. 

“Sub judice is something people throw around when they don’t want to talk about an issue. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about anything to do with the case.”

Obviously it doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the case (except for what is suppressed). Peters had his say at the media conference yesterday and in his statement, and closed saying ““Neither I nor any other party is allowed to make any further comment on this matter because it is now sub-judice.”

That’s just an attempt to stop questions being ask, or is an excuse to not answer questions.

But predictably it hasn’t stopped comment.

Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Winston Peters’ smoke and mirrors fails to hide the truth

The news amounted to a validation of an investigation by Stuff journalist Matt Shand published last November, and subsequent reporting from RNZ’s Guyon Espiner, reporting that financial records showed donations to the foundation had been used to fund an array of campaign and political expenses, but with the donors’ identities not disclosed.

Not that you would have learned as much from the first few minutes of the New Zealand First leader’s remarks.

The party had been “fully cleared”, Peters claimed – largely ignoring the fact that two people had been charged, and instead leaning on the SFO’s clarification that neither of those was a sitting MP, staffer, candidate, or current party member.

Of course that doesn’t exclude people who may have been any of those things at some time in the past.

He claimed “a James Comey-level error of judgement” had been perpetrated against his party, harking back to the former FBI director’s ill-fated decision to reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server on the eve of the 2016 United States election.

But that analogy crumbles at the merest examination. The primary problem with Comey’s decision was that Clinton had already been investigated and cleared over the matter earlier in the year, with the FBI director publicly reopening the matter against official guidelines only to reach the same verdict.

The SFO has clearly found enough evidence to feel a prosecution is worth pursuing, and while the accused are certainly entitled to a presumption of innocence, a decision not to lay any charges whatsoever would have been another matter altogether.

The New Zealand First leader has habitually sought to distance himself and his party from the foundation’s operations, a strategy he turned to on Tuesday: “The foundation is an entirely separate entity [from the party] but that distinction will be lost on some, and deliberately confused by others.”

At a superficial, technical level, Peters is correct. But that ignores the broader truth: that the foundation appears to have funded a number of the party’s activities in recent years, from a guest appearance by boxer Joseph Parker at its 2017 conference to legal advice for an MP and a swish new website and donations platform.

The specifics of how foundation money was spent have yet to be tested at trial, but New Zealand First has not contested that it benefited financially from the trust – merely that it believed the foundation’s structure was legal, and in any case was separate from the party.

But separate does not mean independent, and if the party has benefited from the foundation it seems fair for it to take some responsibility for any wrongdoing, even if not in a strictly legal sense.

But Peters continues to distance himself from any involvement or responsibility.

Technicalities may make a difference in a legal Court, but not so much in the court of political opinion, and that seems to have had a say in polls through this year.

While the February announcement of the SFO investigation may have played some role in its electoral decline, it is nobody’s fault but the foundation’s if (as the agency has concluded) it has a case to answer in court, while there are myriad other unrelated factors that have hobbled the party. 

Polls have fluctuated quite a bit for NZ First through this term, but have been low a number of times prior to the February 2020 announcement. here are some:

  • February 2018 – 2.6% (CB)
  • May 2018 – 2.4% (RR)
  • January 2019 – 2.9% (RR)
  • February 2019 – 3.0% (CB)
  • March 2019 – 2.3% (RR)
  • May 2019 – 2.8% (RR)
  • January 2020 – 2.5% (RR), 3.6% (RR)
  • February 2020 – 3.3% (CB)

The highest NZ First polled in 2018 was 5%. The highest they polled in 2019 was 4.3%. So they were struggling before the SFO investigation.

National and Labour have also been connected to SFO investigations this term. It would have been unfair on them if NZ First had their connections to an investigation and charges suppressed until after the election.

NZ First may even benefit from the current publicity, something they have been struggling to get much of this term.

Leave a comment

16 Comments

  1. Luke Malpass (Stuff): Serious Fraud Office charges may be final blow for NZ First

    Bluster, bravado and bulls….

    That about sums up Winston Peters defending the so-called exoneration of NZ First by the Serious Fraud Office, before denouncing the office as responsible for a James Comey-style stitch-up.

    Peters said he even tried to work with the SFO to bang out an agreed-upon statement, which in the event noted “that neither defendant is a Minister, sitting MP, or candidate in the upcoming election (or a member of their staff), or a current member of the New Zealand First party.

    This is Peters manning the desperation stations. Hidden behind the cloak of name suppression, no one can publicly know who has been charged and Peters is able to carry out as much misdirection as possible.

    It’s all looking a bit 1990s and a scratched re-run of Winston Peters greatest hits: take the SFO to court! It is a plot against NZ First!

    But the fact is the NZ First Foundation looked and smelled dodgy enough for charges to be laid.

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/122929254/election-2020-serious-fraud-office-charges-may-be-final-blow-for-nz-first

    Reply
    • Duker

       /  30th September 2020

      Malpass missed writing the same story about Bridges and the National party who were heavily involved in that SFO investigation. Not even a ‘concerns raised’ non story when Bridges said the same ‘no current party members’ line
      Malpass has been in his job as Political Editor since July last year
      https://www.sfo.govt.nz/sfo-files-charges-in-national-party-donations-case

      Sherlock Holmes comment about the dog that didnt bark comes to mind.
      We know about the after the fact connection between Hooton and Muller….never let on he was very close mates with Muller while bagging Bridges.

      Reply
      • Oh dear, you’re trying the ‘he/she didn’t write about something back in the past’ diversion. You’ve tried that on my too.

        Malpass is one of many journalists at Stuff. It would be ridiculous to expect every journalist to write about every issue, or for every political journalist to write about every political story.

        In 2016 Fairfax had six full members of the press gallery and three associate members (that’s the latest I can find). I presume they still have a few on the current list.

        Now if no one from Stuff/Fairfaax haad written about a particular issue you might have a point, but I think you’re just trying a stupid attack the messenger line.

        Reply
        • Duker

           /  30th September 2020

          Hes the Editor overlooking all the political reporters, yet nothing from a search about SFO and National at all. If I was the executive editor I would expect all the journos to pull their weight not ‘let it be’ ( that may be a Stuff/Dominion case of them long time favourites of National back decades and later when the Business Round Table was topping up their columnists payments while the editor knew – from investigate magazine email leak)

          He gushed literally about Bridges ,while still at the AFR before getting the Stuff job, and that was before English had even stepped down.
          Other journos at the Herald write national party friendly stories and get the advance leaks of what will be said later that day ( important for a morning paper). There used to be labour friendly reporters but they seem to have gone.

          You clearly run all these Peters stories both because its your interest and hes your bete noir and you enjoy taking him on.
          As with the ‘ covid breach at the border’ the Peters comments was similar with intelligent thinking but you got sucked up in the pile in on Peters. A similar line about his court case , he won in that his privacy was breached in a deliberate act not that you mentioned that, however he didnt get damages requested so that was another reason to pile in like many others.
          of course you can choose what ever you like to write about as you dont need anyones approval. But when you pick a Malpass story when he didnt have a peep about exactly same circumstances with Bridges ( or even mention it in passing that SFO is going to trial on the national party donations)
          But you covered that well from memory.
          Malpass is the ‘dog who didnt bark ‘, not you, to use the Sherlock Holmes analogy

          this was the closest Stuff gets..
          “Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross has gone to ground after the Serious Fraud Office announced on Wednesday it was charging four people in relation to the National Party donations scandal.
          National leader Simon Bridges said neither himself, or anyone from the party had been charged.”
          Yep nothing to do with Bridges…no follow up questions even though tape recordings are public information…. nothing to see here. Of course it may be because Bridges sent lawyers letters to all the Political editors about any ‘imputations they may make’ back when the tapes were released. ( No transparency needed for him apparently)
          https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/119167622/mp-jamilee-ross-avoiding-media-after-serious-fraud-office-charges-four-people

          Reply
          • John J Harrison

             /  30th September 2020

            Duker, you are clearly a Peters “ fan boy.”
            If you are so mightily outraged at our metropolitan papers then write an appropriate letter of complaint and let us all know of the response.
            90% of people regard the MSM as stridently left wing.

            Reply
          • Yeah, right.

            All you’re doing is trying to avoid the biggest political story of the moment (which is why I posted on it) as you often do when there’s news that is negative for your political agenda.

            It could get tiresome, but I think it'[s funny, makes it worth posting about it to see which way you try to twist away from it and blame reporters and me and National and anyone but the person who is the centre of the story.

            Winston Peters should take some responsibility for this, but he won’t because he too likes to blame everyone and everything else.

            Reply
          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  30th September 2020

            Duker, it must be depressing that you alone want to make ad hominem attacks in response to every issue. Possibly you are living on the wrong planet?

            Reply
            • Jack

               /  30th September 2020

              Oh dear oh dear, can’t help myself.
              Al, it’s people who carry their cross who sometimes feel like they’re on the wrong planet. Anyway, if you thought a fellow Kiwi suffers from depression you would not be so cruel, could you?

              Your cross to bear is for the edification of the body of Christ.

              Sometimes Peters is obviously cherishing his cross.

              Whenever our politicians forget that a Christian carries it for Jesus Christ and for Church (other Christians), they drop it.

              Duker almost has me convinced to vote for Peters. Or perhaps it was Peters saying that he previously turned down a knighthood.

              Fanboy stuff (cult) here isn’t only committed by Duker.

              Harassment for a cross bearer anyone? Please do. I like being made to go away. There’s too much hypocrisy and tragicity here. Funny much

            • Go away. You said that you were going to.

            • MaureenW

               /  30th September 2020

              Full moon tomorrow

  2. Peters is being interviewed on RNZ.

    Reply
  3. John J Harrison

     /  30th September 2020

    Pete, of course we should all be made aware of criminal charges being laid by the SFO.
    So too with the Labour Party.
    The salient point for me is Peters ascertain that no CURRENT members of NZ First are involved.
    Inviting the obvious question “ were they members last week ?”

    Reply
    • Blazer

       /  30th September 2020

      You must be salivating at hearing the results of the SFO investigation into Nationals fund raising.

      Reply
    • duperez

       /  30th September 2020

      Refer to your friend Simon Bridges and how he tenderly handled questions around that sort of thing. You know, about the membership of someone who was apparently part of a scheme donating money, going to be attending their candidate’s school but who magically, suddenly may not, have been a member off the National Party.

      Getting all high and mighty and trying to come across as principled given the circumstances is ridiculous.

      Reply
  4. Alan Wilkinson

     /  30th September 2020

    Yes.

    Reply
  5. Jack

     /  30th September 2020

    Should voters have been told the SFO findings at this time? Of course, but that is not what Peters has concerned himself about. Such a lot taken out of context.
    NZ Politics – a constant swoon of micro false accusations, because we can. Following the example of Kiwi church leaders of course.

    Reply

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