Claim that Peters was briefed on NZ First Foundation operations

Winston Peters has kept distancing himself and his party from the NZ First Foundation some connections have been obvious, and now it has been claimed that Peters was briefed on the operations of the Foundation.

ODT yesterday: Peters remains upbeat about election chances

Peters said the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation had not hurt the party.

“The SFO investigation was … forced to go public and say that not one New Zealand First member or party member wasn’t any way anything other than exonerated.”

The SFO did nothing like exonerate anyone. It stated 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”.

But Peters wouldn’t respond to questions about whether either of those charged had been party members. And there’s the obvious possibility that party members, MPs and even party leaders could have been associated with the alleged fraudulent actions but not to the level required for charges to be laid.

Also yesterday: Urgent appeal in New Zealand First Foundation donations case dismissed

RNZ, Stuff, NZME and TVNZ have – once again – argued the public have a right to know who the two defendants are ahead of the election polls closing this Saturday evening.

Last week RNZ, Stuff, NZME and TVNZ challenged an interim name suppression order sought in a series of court hearings the media was not present for that currently protect their identities.

The media argued there was compelling public interest in knowing who the accused are before the election is over and any secrecy around the identities impinged on the public’s right to be fully informed before they cast their vote.

The district court ruled against the media; finding one of the defendants had proved an arguable case for name suppression and granting both defendants interim name suppression until their first appearance on 29 October.

After hearing the submissions, Justice Jagose said he found the decision to grant interim name suppression in the case was the right one and dismissed the appeal.

Charging documents state the two defendants used more than $700,000 in a “fraudulent device, trick or stratagem” to pay expenses for the New Zealand First party.

They say the pair used deception to obtain control over $677,885 deposited into the bank account of the New Zealand First Foundation account between 21 April 2017 and 14 February 2020.

The defendants are also charged with using $68,996 deposited into a bank account of a company run by one of the defendants between 31 October 2015 and 20 October 2017.

Today revelations continue: NZ First Foundation financials presented to Winston Peters one year before scandal broke

NZ First leader Winston Peters and high-ranking MPs were briefed about the NZ First Foundation’s expenses and activities one year before it first made headlines, Stuff can reveal, contradicting Peters’ consistent claims the foundation had nothing to do with his political party.

Stuff has seen an internal party report that, according to a source familiar with the matter, was presented to Peters in November 2018.

The report, dated 21 November 23, 2018 [sic], was written by former party president Lester Gray. It is understood that it was hand-delivered to Peters’ home mailbox in Auckland on Sunday, November 25, ahead of a meeting about the matter.

The report referenced money in NZ First Party’s Kiwibank account as well as money in the Foundation’s ASB bank account. It totalled expenses incurred by the ASB account and classed them as party costs.

It is understood that Gray then briefed Peters, MPs Fletcher Tabuteau and Clayton Mitchell in Tabuteau’s office in Wellington on Tuesday, November 27.

Stuff has also seen a separate memo written by the party’s then acting treasurer, John Thorn, to the “board of directors”, dated May 5, 2017. It reveals that the foundation was originally proposed to be a “capital-protected fund”, meaning contributions would never be spent, only profits from the fund’s investments. It was originally meant to be operated “at arm’s length” from the board.

The memo states the foundation would be modelled on the National Party’s National Foundation, which is a capital-protected fund. It states: “there can be little doubt that the model is legally sound and is operated in a manner that meets all legal and ethical obligations”.

However, previous Stuff stories have revealed the New Zealand First Foundation actually operated as a party slush fund. The capital was spent on all manner of party expenses, including campaign headquarters, office furniture, wages and other campaign costs. Some donors who thought they were donating to the party were actually donating to the foundation.

This won’t be helpful for Peters or NZ First in the last two days of the election campaign, but it’s unlikely to do much more damage either at this stage.

More details on NZ First Foundation SFO charges

More details on the charges against two people in relation to NZ First Foundation handling of NZ First Party donations have been revealed, but the identities of the two people charged are still suppressed pending a reserved decision.

RNZ: Pair charged after SFO’s investigation accused of using ‘fraudulent device’

The pair charged after the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation are accused of using a “fraudulent device, trick or stratagem” to secure more than $700,000 then used to pay expenses for the New Zealand First party.

Two people have been charged with obtaining by deception after the SFO’s investigation into the foundation and its handling of donations.

Charging documents released to RNZ today show the two defendants used more than $700,000 in a “fraudulent device, trick or stratagem” to pay expenses for the New Zealand First party.

It was more than $740,000 of donations.

They say the pair used deception to obtain control over $677,885 deposited into the bank account of the New Zealand First Foundation account between 21 April 2017 and 14 February 2020.

The defendants are also charged with using $68,996 deposited into a bank account of a company run by one of the defendants between 31 October 2015 and 20 October 2017.

“Those undeclared funds thereby become available to [a company run by one of the defendants]/New Zealand First Foundation to use as the defendants saw fit, and were used to pay expenses of the party and to develop a fundraising database for the benefit of the party and [a company run by one of the defendants].”

The New Zealand First party took the SFO to the High Court last month seeking to suppress the announcement of the charges and the existence of their court action until after a new government has been formed.

The court ruled against the party, saying there was “a significant public interest in the New Zealand voting public being informed during an election campaign about criminal charges of serious fraud against people or organisations related to political parties”.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has said his party has been completely exonerated by the investigation and stressed the foundation and party are entirely separate entities.

Peters repeated his ‘completely exonerated’ claim in last night’s leaders’ debate but that looks ridiculous.

He also said last night:

“I have welcomed the Serious Fraud Office inquiry from day one, and I welcome its outcome. Let me tell you one thing – I’ve got rid of two former Serious Fraud [Office] leaders – two, not one – and I’m not concerned about this at all.”

That also sounds like nonsense to me considering the lengths the party went to to try to hush up any mention of the case.

Meanwhile Labour is having their own problems: Ginny Andersen tells voters she’s been cleared by Commission, but Labour hasn’t

Labour’s Hutt South candidate, Ginny Andersen, has been cleared by the Electoral Commission for any potential wrongdoing in a local electorate scandal.

However, the Electoral Commission is still looking into potential wrongdoing by the Labour Party which has not declared the very low rent it has received for its Hutt South office as a donation.

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.

SFO files charges in relation to NZ First Foundation donations

A media release from the Serious Fraud Office:

Published 29 September 2020

The SFO has filed a charge of ‘Obtaining by Deception’ against two defendants in the New Zealand First Foundation electoral funding case. The charges were filed on 23 September.

The defendants have interim name suppression and so cannot be named or identified at this time. We note, however, 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.

The SFO has no further comment.

Media release from NZ First:

New Zealand First Fully Exonerated Of All SFO Charges

New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters says today’s decision by the Serious Fraud Office exonerates the New Zealand First Party of any electoral law breaches.

Having fully investigated the allegations the SFO has cleared the New Zealand First Party, all of its Ministers, all sitting members of the New Zealand First party, all candidates standing for election and all party employees of any wrongdoing.

“It is a relief after months of this cloud hanging over the party that we have been fully cleared,” stated Mr Peters.

“Unlike the recent National Party donation scandal, no party member has been implicated or charged by the SFO.”

Notwithstanding the cloud being lifted, New Zealand First’s leader also expressed his dismay at the timing and conduct of the SFO decision.

“Whilst the SFO has confirmed that no New Zealand First Minister, parliamentarian or party member broke any electoral laws, the timing of its decision to lay charges against the Foundation constitutes a James Comey-level error of judgement,” said Mr Peters.

“It’s an appalling intrusion in a period when the people begin to think seriously about the shape of their next government.

“It has been amply demonstrated that FBI Director Comey’s groundless findings impacted on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Allegations were made about me in 2008 which the SFO found to be baseless.

“While we respect its independence, the SFO cannot justify the timing of its decision.

“It is quite shocking for any who believe in fair elections that the SFO, one day from overseas voting and four days from advance voting beginning, would interpose itself into the General Election in this poorly conceived fashion.

“The Foundation is an entirely separate entity from the New Zealand First Party but that distinction will be lost on some, and deliberately confused by others,” said Mr Peters.

“The way in which this investigation has been conducted raises serious questions about the conduct of the Serious Fraud Office.

“In my opinion, the SFO has acted unreasonably and without justification both in the way in which the investigation has been conducted and in public announcements the SFO has chosen to make about the investigation in breach of the Serious Fraud Office’s own written policy of not commenting on investigations until the first appearance of any accused facing charges,” stated Mr Peters.

“As a result, the New Zealand First Party has instructed its lawyers to issue proceedings in the High Court against the Serious Fraud Office seeking declarations that the Serious Fraud Office has amounted to an abuse of its statutory powers and has been unreasonable.

“Compounding the SFO’s poor judgement are three other matters. First, the SFO’s still incomplete investigation of foreign money flowing into the National Party. We know they were provided significantly more serious information about the pernicious foreign influence campaign that penetrated the National Party. Yet only a portion of those electoral breaches resulted in charges. Why?

“Second, if voters need to hear from the SFO before the election where are its findings about Labour’s mayoral electoral funding in both Christchurch and Auckland?

“Third, what about the SFO’s investigation into donations made to Labour in 2017?

“How is that fair? It is not.

“Voters will judge for themselves the fairness of the SFO’s actions.

“Notwithstanding today’s exoneration by the SFO, taxpayer-funded and other journalists, those who have spilled litres of ink in trying to destroy New Zealand First, must now confront the truth that not one Minister, MP, or party member has been anything other than fully exonerated,” stated Mr Peters.

“The point also needs to be repeated to those same journalists attempting to smear me and my party, that New Zealand First is completely separate from the Foundation.

“Neither I nor any other party is allowed to make any further comment on this matter because it is now sub-judice.”

As their is a suppression order on the case anything posted here that I deem puts this site at risk may be deleted.

High Court bars Jami-Lee Ross from publishing SFO documents

Ex National and now Independent MP Jami-Lee Ross, who is being prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office over donations made to National that Ross went public about to try to damage National, has now been barred from publishing documents provided to him by the SFO as part of the prosecution proceedings.

RNZ: High Court blocks Jami-Lee Ross from publishing sensitive documents

The SFO said the material was sent to all the defendants as part of its disclosure obligations and Ross then expressed an interest in publishing it.

“The agency believes any publication of the material would have breached the SFO’s secrecy provisions and been contrary to requirements of confidentiality applying to the use of material obtained through court proceedings.

“However, the SFO sought a court order to ensure there was no doubt that the material remained confidential,” the agency said in a statement.

Ross said he had no intention of breaching people’s privacy but wanted to expose the nature of the documents.

After his attempt to expose National backfired on him badly Ross should have been cautious about publicising court documents.

Perhaps he thought that any publicity was good publicity heading into an election he looks likely to lose.

It is more common for politicians to insist on their own silence on matters ‘before the courts’.

Ross maintained that he was a whistleblower, but the SFO seems to think differently.

In February Ross made a statement to the court that there was “No basis for such a concern” that Ross ” may make a statement to Parliament regarding the matter”.

RNZ – National Party donations case: Jami-Lee Ross named as suppressions lifted

Former National MP, and now independent, Jami-Lee Ross, has been named today as one of the four people facing Serious Fraud Office (SFO) charges in relation to two $100,000 donations made to the National Party.

Today the application filed for Ross said he “has not and does not seek interim name suppression and is happy if such orders are discharged or lapse”.

His application also said the other three had applied to have name suppression lifted “due to an apparent concern that Mr Ross, as a sitting Member of Parliament may make a statement to Parliament regarding the matter”.

“No basis for such a concern has been provided, and there is none,” it said.

“Parliament has been sitting for a week. During that time, Mr Ross has at no time indicated an intention to make a statement in Parliament or to the public regarding this matter in breach of the current orders, nor has he done so. He has complied fully with the interim orders, notwithstanding these were never sought by him.”

But a week ago Ross did want to reveal details in Parliament.

NZ Herald: National’s President Peter Goodfellow addresses threats from Jami-Lee Ross to release leaked donor info

National’s president is playing down threats by ex-National MP Jami-Lee Ross to make public the party’s 2017 donation records in the House tomorrow.

On Sunday, the sitting Botany MP claimed to have been leaked National’s 2017 donor list…

He said he planned to table evidence of this in Parliament before Parliament adjourns for the campaign period.

Ross told the Herald that at this stage, he planned to table the documents during tomorrow’s general debate in the House.

He must have been blocked from tabling the documents.

And it doesn’t seem a coincidence that the SFO has obtained a bar on releasing documents – are these the same documents that Ross claimed were ‘leaked’?

Stuff: Serious Fraud Office accidentally leaked document to Jami-Lee Ross

On Thursday, the SFO welcomed a court decision confirming the confidentiality of material that was inadvertently disclosed by the agency to the defendants.

The material was disclosed during the course of the agency’s compliance with its normal disclosure obligations.

In a statement by the SFO on Thursday, it said it had acted with an abundance of care in seeking the court order as one of the parties had reportedly expressed an interest in publishing the material.

“The agency believes that any publication of the material would have breached the SFO’s secrecy provisions and been contrary to requirements of confidentiality applying to the use of material obtained through court proceedings.”

The SFO then sought a court order to ensure there was no doubt that the material remained confidential.

This doesn’t sound like a leak to me, despite their headline Stuff reports “inadvertently disclosed” and “the material was disclosed during the course of the agency’s compliance with its normal disclosure obligations”.

SFO investigating Labour Party donations

The Serious Fraud Office announced today that they are investigating Labour Parry donations from 2017.

SFO commences investigation in relation to Labour Party donations

The Serious Fraud Office has commenced an investigation in relation to donations made to the Labour Party in 2017.

The SFO is presently conducting four investigations in relation to electoral funding matters. A fifth matter that the agency investigated relating to electoral funding is now before the courts.

“We consider that making the current announcement is consistent with our past practice in this area of electoral investigations and in the public interest,” the Director of the SFO, Julie Read, said.

In the interests of transparency and consistency, the SFO has announced the commencement of all these investigations.

RNZ: Serious Fraud Office to investigate 2017 Labour Party donations

In a statement, the SFO said it was conducting four investigations in relation to electoral funding, and a fifth was now before the courts.

The other cases involved respectively the New Zealand First FoundationAuckland Council, and Christchurch Council.

An SFO investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation was launched in February, after police promptly handed in a complaint from the Electoral Commission last November.

Kiwiblog: SFO announces investigation into Labour’s 2017 donations

This is very interesting. If I had to guess, I’d say the investigation was into Labour not naming people who paid tens of thousands of dollars for artworks as a donation to Labour.

The Standard:  SFO to Investigate Labour Donations

It appears the investigation may be into donations made at a ‘silent’ art auction in 2017. In February, Labour acknowledged that two men facing SFO charges along side National Party bag man Jami-Lee Ross and another man over donations to the Tories, had made donations to Labour as well.

Labour Party president Claire Szabo said at the time that Zheng Hengjia donated $10,000 by buying a piece of art at a silent auction in April 2017 and Zheng Shijia donated $1940 in 2018.

Szabo noted both donations were included in the Labour Party return filed in the respective years.

Possibly the main change of note here is that finally the SFO are investigating donations. In the past the Police tended to kick for touch on political investigations.

More on NZ First Foundation use of funds

More revelations on the use of the NZ First Foundation that handled party donations apparently without reporting correctly to the Electoral Commission (currently being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office).

RNZ: NZF Foundation spent $130k on company run by Winston Peters’ lawyer

Tens of thousands in donor’s funds given to the New Zealand First Foundation were spent paying expenses, wages and bills for people closely associated with the New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

The foundation, which has bankrolled NZ First using secret donations from rich business people, spent more than $130,000 on a company run by Brian Henry – the personal lawyer and close friend of Peters.

Documents obtained by RNZ show that between January 2018 and July 2019, the foundation took in $224,000 in donations from supporters – and overall, spent at least $368,000.

Of that, at least $137,000 of foundation funds were spent on a company called QComms.

Company office records show the sole director and shareholder of QComms is Brian Henry, who is a trustee of the foundation and the judicial officer of the New Zealand First party.

The two people who did most of the work for QComms were also closely linked to the party.

Jamie Henry, Brian Henry’s daughter, received $64,500 in wages and expenses, which included seven identical amounts, totalling $3010, referenced as ‘rent’. All those costs were paid by the foundation.

Jamie Henry would not comment when contacted by RNZ.

The other key worker for QComms was John Thorn, who received $61,000 in wages and expenses in just over a year, all paid by the foundation.

Thorn, who has now left the party, was the vice-president for the South Island and the NZ First official who authored a paper first setting out a proposal that the party establish the New Zealand First Foundation.

Asked if he knew anything about the payments to QComms, Peters said he had nothing to do with it “in that context”.

That’s an evasive response.

“I think you should ask Mr Henry or the Serious Fraud Office.”

He said he was “absolutely relaxed about that” and would not comment further.

Brian Henry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

I think it’s expected that Henry or Peters wouldn’t want to comment while it is being investigated by the SFO, but these revelations add to an ongoing problem for Peters and NZ First.

That the Foundation was paying a company owned and directed by a trustee of the Foundation on it’s own looks dicey.

The company dates back to 2002 but the original name DOBSON & LANE LIMITED was changed from to GOLDMAN HENRY LIMITED in 2014, to HENRY MERCHANTS INTERNATIONAL LIMITED in 2015, and then to QCOMMS LIMITED on 16 February 2018.

SFO aiming for NZ First Foundation decision before election

The Serious Fraud Office have been investigating the NZ First Foundation, which appears to have bene used by the NZ First Party to handle donations. There have been media claims the foundation paid some party related expenses directly.

The SFO usually takes quite a while to investigate things, but they hope to have a decision before the election.

RNZ:  SFO decision over NZ First Foundation will come before election

The Serious Fraud Office says it is on track to make a call before this year’s election on whether to lay charges in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation, which has been bankrolling the New Zealand First Party.

In a rare statement today, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which normally gives little away, laid out its timetable for the investigation, which has faced challenges because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

“The SFO’s pre-lockdown timetable for the investigation in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation would see us completing the investigation before the September election date,” director Julie Read said.

“At this stage, we are progressing the investigation under the current lockdown restrictions and are still on track to complete it within that timeframe.”

“Our actual completion date will be dependent upon our ability to conduct certain interviews as well as other tasks which can only be completed at lower alert levels and the cooperation of those who hold information relevant to our investigation.”

The election is still scheduled for 19 September, although Winston peters has called for a delay until November.

The investigation followed revelations by RNZ and Stuff that the foundation received donations from entities connected with some of the country’s wealthiest people in the business, fisheries and horse racing worlds.

None of the donations were declared in the party’s electoral returns and the only disclosed source of money to New Zealand First since 2017 was a loan made by the foundation.

Documents seen by RNZ show that between April 2017 and August 2019 nearly $500,000 was deposited into the foundation bank account, including payments from some of New Zealand’s wealthiest business people or entities connected to them.

In many cases the donations were for amounts just under the $15,000.01 level at which the donors’ names would normally be made public.

Over that period the foundation spent more than $425,000 paying bills for the New Zealand First party, including advertising expenses, fees for political consultants, rent, establishing a party HQ and running its website.

Barry Soper (NZH): Winston Peters’ trustee the subject of SFO raid

The offices of Winston Peters confidante and trustee of the New Zealand First Foundation Brian Henry were the subject of an early morning raid by the Serious Fraud Office in February, before the Covid-19 lockdown.

Investigators took documents relating to the Foundation, which was said by the Electoral Commission to be in breach of electoral law in that it didn’t declare donations that ended up being used for party expenses.

Henry appeared relaxed about the raid, saying he was happy to co-operate with the SFO because the Foundation had nothing to hide. He said all the documents were in a box waiting for them.

I presume the SFO will check those off against documents leaked to media.

 

Two mayors under SFO investigation over donations

The Serious Fraud Office, already prosecuting four people including MP Jami-Lee Ross over donations made to the National Party and investigating  donations made to the NZ First Foundation, has announced two more investigations, one into Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel, the other into Auckland mayor Phil Goff.

Stuff: Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel under scrutiny as expenses complaint referred to Serious Fraud Office

Pressure is mounting on Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel after police referred a complaint about her election expenses to the Serious Fraud Office.

The SFO said police passed on the matter of Dalziel’s expenses on Tuesday, the organisation receiving the file on Friday.

Dalziel, who defeated Darryll Park and John Minto in October to win her third term as mayor, was criticised for failing to identify donors who made significant contributions to her campaign.

Minto made the complaint to electoral officer Jo Daly in December after Dalziel’s election return listed only her husband, lawyer Rob Davidson, as a donor at a campaign fundraiser in July.

But after coming under public pressure she revealed the names of six people who donated more than $1500 at the dinner by buying auctioned wine for prices higher than market value.

All six have connections with Davidson, and many have links to China.

The mayor has also previously declined to release details of her 2016 election campaign donations, despite the timeframe for any prosecution having expired.

Dalziel is not the first mayor to have difficulties with election expenses. This month the SFO revealed it has seen a 40 per cent increase in cases involving public officials, central and local government, in the past five years.

Stuff: Auckland Mayor Phil Goff referred to Serious Fraud Office over election expenses

The Serious Fraud Office has received a referral from police in relation to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s election expenses.

The SFO said it would be assessing the matter and had no further comment at this time.

Electoral law dictates candidates can accept anonymous donations under $1500, but must disclose the names of donors who contribute more than that sum.

A spokeswoman for the mayor said he had “no knowledge of a complaint being referred to the SFO nor of any irregularities”.

In September, Auckland’s electoral officer, Dale Ofsoske, passed on to police a complaint about Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s 2016 election expense declaration.

Goff’s $366,000 fundraising auction declaration did not specify individual donations or purchases, which included the sale at an auction of a book for $150,000. The book had belonged to Goff, a former minister of foreign affairs, and had been signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Police made “a number of inquiries” before the timeframe for any prosecution expired in December, rendering them unable to progress the matter.

Ofsoske told Stuff at the time the complaint was under section 112D of the Local Electoral Act 2001, ‘Filing a false return of electoral donations and expenses’.

Pressure is increasing on changing electoral laws on donations. The problem is, the parties who benefit the most from donations decide on what the rules should be.

The Press Editorial:  It’s time to end the secrecy over political donations

There are now questions over the funding of two of our major political parties, including one that is in Government, and the mayors of our two largest cities, both of whom are former Cabinet ministers.

Even if the process is not corrupt, the secrecy and the manipulation of the rules risks eroding public trust in our democracy.

Is there a better way to fund elections? Dalziel’s mayoral challenger, John Minto, who brought the complaint about Dalziel’s donations to the electoral officer, has suggested an overhaul of donation rules within wider electoral law reform. Minto argues that all donors giving over $50 should be identified, individuals should be named rather than companies and donors should be identified at least one week before the election.

Informed voters could make their choices accordingly.

But in Christchurch, neither Dalziel nor candidate Darryll Park was prepared to do the same. Minto volunteered that he had just one donation over $1500, from the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa.

Banning donations and publicly funding candidates and parties instead is not the answer. Rather, New Zealand voters must now start to demand greater transparency.

Listener editorial: A simple way to clean up the political donations mess

The Greens have an idea for cleaning up political donations, starting with “an independent citizens’ assembly” because, they say, “it’s clear that Parliament is incapable of [making] meaningful reforms to itself”.

Here’s a different idea for cleaning up political donations, which is simpler and more cost-effective than the Greens’ proposal: obey the law. Everyone else must, whatever their line of work, and political parties should, too.

Just because parties and individuals sometimes fall foul of electoral law does not automatically mean the law needs “reform”…

Good call. It just means that the current laws need to be applied.

The current prosecutions and investigations are likely to have a significant impact on potential donors as well as parties and politicians. They have been warned.

A robust democracy needs political parties to be sufficiently funded to actively participate in elections. That is not cheap and parties rely on donations to foot it in an election campaign. If the $15,000 limit above which a single donation must be declared – and the $40,000 from one donor in a year – is considered the wrong level, then parties can make a case to set it higher or lower. Whatever the limit, the incentive to give just under the cut-off point will always apply to those who would prefer, for whatever reason, not to have their names disclosed.

The ability to solicit donations is a reasonable way for parties to pay for their activities, and the ability to donate is, equally, a reasonable way for New Zealanders to support their preferred party. The alternative is state funding. Nothing suggests that would find favour with the public.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigations involving National and NZ First, perhaps all parties need to reconsider the training they provide to MPs, staff, officers and volunteers about the laws affecting donations.

I think the biggest problems seem to be at the top of parties and campaigns.

It’s hard to know whether the sudden splurge of SFO investigations is a sign of more questionable donation dealings, or more complaints, or more response to complaints by the SFO. It should at least serve as a warning too parties and candidates in this year’s election.

Applying the current laws may be all that is needed to ensure far better compliance.

Drip feed continues on NZ First Foundation donations

The media drip feed continues as more details have been published about donations to the NZ First Foundation.

Yesterday RNZ: Concerns over secret fisheries donations to NZ First Foundation

One of the country’s biggest fishing companies, Talley’s, and its managing director donated nearly $27,000 to the New Zealand First Foundation, which has been bankrolling the New Zealand First Party.

The foundation received $26,950 from seafood giant Talley’s and from managing director Sir Peter Talley between 2017 and 2019, according to records viewed by RNZ.

It received the money from Talley’s in four amounts – all of which were below the threshold for public disclosure and so have not been publicly revealed until now.

Greenpeace was concerned by the donations and believed the New Zealand First Party had too much sway over fishing policy and the party was too close to the industry.

These don’t seem big amounts or a big deal, nor a surprise. I think Talleys and the fishing industry have are well known to have supported NZ First. The difference here is that donations are allegedly being hidden by channelling them via the Foundation rather than to the party where public declarations are required.

Today at Stuff:  Billionaires among the full list of donors supporting NZ First

A raft of multimillionaire rich-listers are among the funders of Winston Peters’ NZ First party, donating large and undisclosed sums to a slush fund now being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

Stuff can reveal a longer list of donors to the NZ First Foundation up to April 2019 – which appears to operate as a political slush fund – based on Foundation documents seen by Stuff. It includes New Zealand’s richest man, Graeme Hart, and the billion-dollar Spencer family.

Business magnates, property developers, a chicken farmer, and thoroughbred horse breeders are among the wealthy known to have contributed heavily to the foundation, which tallied more than $500,000 in donations.

There is no suggestion the donors have done anything wrong or acted illegally.

Former NZ First MP Doug Woolerton, a trustee of the NZ First Foundation and a government lobbyist, told the Politik website last year that the party has “always thought [its] constituency was the guy who owns the shop, the guy who fixes the tractors”.

“It’s not the farmers. It’s the people who service the farmers who do the grunt work day to day,” he said.

But the donations show NZ First retains the support of some of New Zealand’s business elite and wealthiest individuals.

A WORKING-CLASS PARTY

Despite gathering financial support from New Zealand’s lofty elite, NZ First maintains it is the party dedicated to meeting the needs of working-class Kiwis.

Newshub yesterday: Shane Jones concerned New Zealand First donors will be put-off in election year

Shane Jones is concerned about donors to New Zealand First being “depicted as some type of leper” as new revelations emerge about donations to the New Zealand First Foundation.

The NZ First MP said he is “genuinely not aware” of the functioning of the NZ First Foundation, which is currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over allegations it’s been hiding donations for the party.

Jones said he’s worried about a “clear agenda” designed to “spook and quite frankly stigmatise industries” that New Zealand First relies on for support as a political party.

There may be a bit of that, but politicians under scrutiny often claim to be the victims of agendas. Winston Peters has often claimed to be a victim of the media and other things.

But none of this would have happened if NZ First hadn’t use a Foundation to, apparently, hide donations.

The Electoral Commission announced earlier this month that following an investigation it found the NZ First Foundation had “received donations which should have been treated as party donations for the New Zealand First Party”.

The Electoral Commission referred the matter to police who then referred it to the SFO which confirmed this month that an investigation had been launched.

Jones, a Cabinet minister, said he “accepts that there is a statutory process in place”.

He told Newshub: “I genuinely feel as an MP that people who think that I represent a force for good in New Zealand politics and the economy… I’m very concerned that they may be depicted as some type of leper.”

Jones does have a history of involvement in the fisheries sector, having chaired Te Ohu Kaimoana – the Māori Fisheries Commission – and seafood company Sealord.

The Minister for Regional Economic Development said he has nothing to hide, pointing to a donation he received from Talley’s in 2017 for $10,000 which was declared in his electorate candidate donation expenses form.

“It’s a matter of public record that over the course of various elections I have received donations from the fishing industry,” Jones told Newshub.

“My role of advocacy for fishing, the red meat industry, for the mining industry – it’s an open book… I will never shirk or shy away from standing up for industry.”

It is unclear how much NZ First MPs knew about the Foundation.  Even Peters claimed to know nothing about it, but his story keeps changing, he also claims to know everything the Foundation didn’t do.

There have been suggestions that the Foundation effectively managed party finances and donations without the party officials being involved at all. Some officials have resigned over it, and may be the source of the information being revealed.

It seems unlikely the SFO case will get to court before the election. There’s even doubt whether they will announce whether they will prosecute, they are currently just investigating.

It has been claimed that the Foundation paid expenses on behalf of the Party. Somme of those details could be interesting.