As it happened: Jami-Lee Ross vs Simon Bridges saga reaches new heights

The Jami-Lee Ross scandal is showing no signs of slowing down, with fresh allegations on Thursday morning he had a number of affairs.

Here's what's happened on Thursday:

Mr Ross is expected to release text messages backing up his claims of corruption at the highest levels of the National Party on Thursday sometime.

Live updates have now ended.

7:45pm - A National Party candidate says she became the victim of a "campaign of harassment" by Jami-Lee Ross after she didn't vote for his wife for board chair.

Katrina Bungard, who stood for the Manurewa electorate last year, told NZME that in 2016 Mr Ross aggressively campaigned for his wife Lucy Schwaner to be appointed chair of the Howick Community Board.

Ms Bungard, a board member, claims he enlisted political strategist Simon Lusk who tried to bribe her into supporting Ms Schwaner.

"I had to get medical help," she told NZME. "I had phone calls where he was 'going to war' with me and my family."

She says the harassment escalated after she didn't vote for Ms Schwaner, culminating in her being served a trespass notice when she tried to attend a National Party morning tea.

It was then that Ms Bungard complained to party officials, resulting in Mr Ross getting a "serious talking to" from president Peter Goodfellow.

She says neither Simon Bridges nor Paula Bennett knew about what happened to her.

6:45pm - Stuff reports National Party president Peter Goodfellow signed a confidentiality agreement with a woman after she complained about Jami-lee Ross' behaviour.

The woman reportedly told Mr Goodfellow she felt threatened by Mr Ross' "threatening and bullying behaviour".

Mr Goodfellow brokered the agreement, which included a confidentiality clause, before Simon Bridges became leader. It's unknown if Mr Bridges knew about the complaint.

Radio NZ also reports that an unidentified woman signed a confidentiality agreement with Mr Goodfellow after coming forward with complaints about Mr Ross. 

5:45pm - Chris Finlayson has traded barbs with Winston Peters.

Simon Bridges mentioned Mr Finlayson in the secret recording as an "obvious" MP to get rid of, along with David Carter and Maureen Pugh.

Mr Peters told media on Thursday that Kiwis would be shocked to hear the National Party leader talk about his own MPs that way, but suggested he agreed with Mr Bridges' assessment.

"I always knew that Finlayson – the greatest legal mind the Commonwealth has ever seen – was going and Mr Carter had gone by his used by date a long time ago," he said.

Mr Finlayson, a former lawyer, has hit back at his comments with a sarcastic post on his official Facebook page.

"I am humbled by Winston Peters assessment of me as the 'greatest legal mind the Commonwealth has ever seen'," he wrote.

"That is high praise indeed from someone who never got any further in the law than being a staff solicitor in a Howick Law Firm.

"If ever he needs me to act for him in, for example, a hearing in the Privileges Committee, he has only to ask," he continued.

The 62-year-old told Newsroom yesterday he was already planning on leaving Parliament before the 2020 election.

4:41pm - National Party President Peter Goodfellow has responded to the release of Ross' texts with Greg Hamilton with a statement.

"There has been speculation that we have received a $100,000 donation, there was no such donation," he says.

"The Botany Electorate of the National Party received 8 donations, and Mr Ross declared 8 donations to us.

"Mr Ross has also said that he will be releasing some text messages between himself and Greg Hamilton. To ensure you see the entire conversation we are releasing these 4 text messages.

"We have no further comment to make at this stage."

4:26pm - Jami-Lee Ross has released his text conversation about the $100,000 donation with party secretary Greg Hamilton.

As it happened: Jami-Lee Ross vs Simon Bridges saga reaches new heights
As it happened: Jami-Lee Ross vs Simon Bridges saga reaches new heights
As it happened: Jami-Lee Ross vs Simon Bridges saga reaches new heights

4:05pm - Jami-Lee Ross has confirmed he's spoken to a lawyer regarding the accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

Newsroom reported today that four women have accused him of using "brutal sex" to dig dirt on other people. The allegations are as yet unproven, but Newsroom reporter Melanie Reid has said she knows of "at least another five" women with similar claims about him.

In a text, Mr Ross told Newshub he is "assessing my legal options".

3:30pm - Winston Peters has called the racially-charged remarks exchanged between Simon Bridges and Jami-Lee Ross in their June conversation racist.

"[The discussion was] seriously racist in its judgement, anti-Indian in its content," he told media on Thursday.

2:35pm - Newshub has spoken with Southland mayor Gary Tong, who is currently travelling in China with Yikun Zhang.

He denies that he's trying to strengthen his relationship with the businessman so he can be made an advisor on his council, and says they're "very much still in the friendship stages" rather than having any official ties.

He told Newshub's Emma Cropper that he has discussed the Jami-Lee Ross saga with Mr Zhang, who is dismayed at his unwanted involvement in the scandal.

"It would be fair to say that he is disappointed about what's being said about him in New Zealand. It's not about him, it's about the relationship between Mr Ross and Mr Bridges."

He says Mr Ross "needs to step up and start presenting some facts" so the matter can be put to bed.

Mr Tong says "from what I've picked up" he doesn't believe Mr Zhang donated $100,000 to the National Party.

"I have 100 percent confidence Mr Zhang is not involved in this matter," he says.

"This needs to come from Jami-Lee Ross or the police or Paula Bennett, they're the ones who can establish the facts."

As for Colin Zheng, the "younger donor" who Mr Bridges mentioned putting through candidates' college in the leaked conversation, Mr Tong says he's also in China with the delegation.

"I haven't spoken to Colin about this at all."

Mr Tong says he regrets being put "in the middle fo all this carry-on" and he's happy with what he's doing with Mr Zhang and the delegation.

He was "blown away" by the sexual allegations made against Mr Ross, and is disappointed with the whole situation.

Jami-Lee Ross posted images to Twitter of Simon Bridges meeting with Yikun Zhang at a private dinner in May.
Jami-Lee Ross posted images to Twitter of Simon Bridges meeting with Yikun Zhang at a private dinner in May. Photo credit: Twitter / Jami-Lee Ross

1:10pm - Blogger David Farrar hopes Jami-Lee Ross sits out the Botany by-election.

"I think it would be an awful experience for him, and humiliating," the National-aligned commentator wrote on his blog.

"Despite the anger at what Jami-Lee has done, a lot of people are genuinely worried for him. He needs support."

He said he feels bad for Mr Ross' wife and kids.

"His children will grow up with articles on the Internet about their father’s relationships with other women. As a father this upsets me greatly. No kid should have to endure that."

Mr Farrar appeared on The AM Show earlier on Thursday morning. 

12:55pm - Simeon Brown, MP of Pakuranga - which neighbours Jami-Lee Ross' Botany electorate - has called his former colleague a "bad apple".

"What Jami-Lee's been doing is damaging… but we're a strong, united team," the 27-year-old told RadioLIVE.

"We're resilient and he's no longer part of our team. We are a united caucus. We've got rid of the bad apple. We're moving forward and focusing on the issues which matter - such as cracking down on synthetic drug dealers. That's what New Zealanders want us to do."

Mr Brown's Private Member's Bill increasing the penalty for supplying illegal synthetic drugs was drawn from the ballot in February and passed its second reading on Wednesday night.

12:50pm - Jami-Lee Ross still hasn't responded to Newshub's request for a response to the devastating Newsroom article, Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien has told RadioLIVE.

She then went on to detail just how this is "uncharted territory" compared to previous parliamentary scandals. 

"It's like nothing I've ever seen before. There has always been a kind of invisible wall you do not cross when it comes to politicians and their private lives. No one wants their families brought into politics... For them to be bringing in these elements about people's marriages and things, is a redirection for politics. MPs I've spoken to today don't want to see this the norm."

But she said if people are behaving in the way claimed in the Newsroom article, "that is in the public interest to know. We need to make sure women are safe around people in positions of power."

Tova O'Brien.
Tova O'Brien. Photo credit: MediaWorks

12:25pm - University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis says the evidence from the recording released by Jami-Lee Ross on Wednesday doesn't back up what he claims.

He called Mr Ross' initial claim that Mr Bridges wanted to split a $100,000 donation into smaller amounts to avoid making the donor public "potentially career-ending stuff" for the National Party leader.

But since then, Prof Geddis says it appears Mr Ross' "story has changed" - he now says a number of donations appeared in his electorate bank account from named people, adding up to $100,000.

"In the recording that Jami-Lee Ross then released, it sounded like what happened was an association of Chinese businesspeople got together... and each individually gave money to this bank account, each of them individually under $15,000 so it didn't need to be disclosed - all of which would have been completely illegal."

Prof Geddis says there's no proof the money was donated by one person, nor that Mr Bridges had anything to do with it.

"It's only Jami-Lee Ross' word, and Jami-Lee Ross' word seems to be becomes less and less reliable."

Mr Ross has taken his evidence to the police. Prof Geddis says they'll be trying to trace the money back to its source.

"If the police can turn up evidence people have been allowing money to go forward under their names that actually came from someone else, that would be against the Electoral Act. But as I say, we haven't any evidence of that as yet."

Prof Geddes said Mr Bridges could "probably" sue Mr Ross for defamation, as the latter has "probably gone beyond" any defences in law that make it okay to criticise a public figure.

"But if Simon Bridges sues for defamation, that just strings this whole thing out even more... the last thing Simon Bridges wants is a defamation case stringing this out for any more time."

12:15pm - The scandal has now gone global, with news outlets in the UK, Australia and the US reporting on the biggest political scrap New Zealand's seen in a long time.

The Associated Press focused on Simon Bridges' "f**king useless" jibe about MP Maureen Pugh, saying it startled Kiwis "accustomed to a restrained brand of politics".

But if you need a break from the furore, here's National MP Gerry Brownlee with his best organic gardening tips. 

12pm - Simon Bridges says he "knew nothing" about the allegations raised against Jami-Lee Ross until the expenses leak investigation began, and would have kicked him out of the party earlier if he knew.

"It's only in very recent weeks. Within a day of learning about these things I confronted Jami-Lee Ross about them, and have made sure at the end of all this, he's no longer a part of our caucus."

He refused to comment on deputy leader Paula Bennett's claim Mr Ross had engaged in behaviour "unacceptable from a married Member of Parliament".

"Unlike Jami-Lee Ross, I respect privacy and I respect the women who have been brave here."

He wouldn't say whether any of the women were Members of Parliament, or if he knew of any more women yet to come forward.

Simon Bridges.
Simon Bridges. Photo credit: Newshub.

11:50am - Simon Bridges says he "deeply appreciates" how Maureen Pugh has been "gracious and forgiving" over his comments calling her "f**king useless". 

But he refused to confirm whether or not there were more recordings of him badmouthing his own party's MPs.

"I'm not going to play these silly games. It's very clear I'm someone of integrity. I have the full support of my caucus... Now that we've got rid of Jami-Lee Ross... we're going to get on with our job."

As for the discussion he and Mr Ross had around preferring Chinese candidates over Indians, he said it was a desire for the National Party to "reflect the face of New Zealand and its multiculturalism". 

"It was a blunt conversation."

Asked by Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien if it was possible to "buy" a candidacy for National, Mr Bridges said "not at all".

Mr Bridges said he doesn't believe there had been any discussions between him and a donor about opening up a candidate slot. 

11:45am - Simon Bridges has again answered questions about whether he's safe in the job.

"I've got the full confidence of my caucus. I feel incredibly energised in the job. I'm looking forward to Botany, and winning that by-election well and holding this Government to account on the stuff I know matters - like petrol prices, taxes and their wasteful spending," he told Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien.

Asked if there were more recordings from Mr Ross to come that would embarrass him, Mr Bridges said he was "incredibly comfortable".

"I'm a person of integrity. He's got nothing."

10:55am - Simon Bridges has been speaking at the Royal A&P show in Hawke's Bay. While there to talk on rural issues, he did open his speech with a joke.

"I've got a new question whenever I speak - is anyone taping me?" 

The crowd laughed.

Mr Bridges did not take any questions afterwards. He was immediately followed by National agriculture spokesperson Nathan Guy, who told the crowd that "people aren't too interested in the beltway issues of Wellington".

10:45am - National deputy leader Paula Bennett has praised the "incredibly brave" women who spoke to Newsroom about Mr Ross' alleged harassment.

"We have had appropriate supports around anyone who has come to my attention. I have always put the women at the centre of everything I have done," Ms Bennett told NZME.

"When matters have been brought to our attention, we have dealt with them immediately. When inappropriate behaviour was raised with us, we took this to him."

She said she only found out about the extent of his alleged behaviour just before he went on medical leave a few weeks ago.

"We will regroup and make sure all of our people are safe."

Paula Bennett.
Paula Bennett. Photo credit: Newshub.

She didn't want to talk about Mr Ross' motivations, saying his mind is a "very place" she doesn't want to go into.

Meanwhile MP Nicky Wagner, one of those disparaged by Mr Ross and Mr Bridges in the secret recording, told Newstalk ZB Mr Ross is "going through a psychotic episode".

"I feel sorry for the people around him," she told the station.

10:35am - Massey Universtiy sociologist Prof Paul Spoonley said it was not surprising to hear on the secret recording suggestions that spots on the National Party list could be on offer in exchange for sizeable donations

In the recording, Mr Ross tells Mr Bridges one of the donors could become a candidate after going through "candidate college". 

"I am deeply concerned that somebody who should give a donation to a political party should then expect certain political outcomes," Prof Spoonley told RadioLIVE, saying it might be typical in China, but not here.

"We need them to understand that in our society, we have certain requirements in terms of democratic process. That needs to be carefully explained to them."

Paul Spoonley.
Paul Spoonley. Photo credit: The AM Show

10:30am - Right-leaning political commentator Matthew Hooton has compared Simon Bridges, struggling in the polls, to Helen Clark.

"You'll remember back in 1996 there was a leader of the Labour Paty polling 2 percent in the preferred Prime Minister polls. Her party was in the teens... that led to Michael Cullen, Phil Goff and Annette King going and seeing Helen Clark and telling her she had to step down as leader... That was a crisis for her leadership... and she stood up to them and stared them down," he told RadioLIVE.

"I think in the press conference yesterday, probably for the first time, we saw a strong, decisive Simon Bridges... dealing with a major crisis [in] his leadership.... That looked, I think to the National Party caucus and the National Party membership, that is a Prime Minister talking."

Mr Hooton says the latest revelations will see the National Party "united around Simon Bridges" like never before.

"An absolutely despicable individual," he said of Mr Ross. "A person who does not have any place in Parliament."

He said questions will need to be asked how Mr Ross managed to get elected and so high up the National Party heirarchy in the first place.

"There will undoubtedly be more tapes... more bad language, there will undoubtedly be some slanging of colleagues. But National Party MPs have thick skins.They understand the context of that. They know that people speak in a way in private that did not necessarily reflect their ongoing views."

10:15am - Ms Reid has spoken some more about her bombshell Newsroom article. She told RadioLIVE the allegations in the article aren't new, as she's been working on the story for a long time - and has proof to back up it up. 

"When he's come forward and talked about... his moral compass and being incredibly comfortable with his behaviour, it's become a tipping point for these women. Because they've been sitting on this for a long time and have said nothing."

Ms Reid began investigating Mr Ross when "a group of people" came to her about a year ago.

"It wasn't just them saying, 'Hey, this has happened.' I have, obviously, lots of back-up information, recordings, I have email chains, text messages."

She says none of the women know of each other's stories beforehand.

"They were all operating in isolation, talking to me." 

As for the total number of women, Ms Reid says there's "way more" than the four featured in the article. 

10:05am - National MP Todd Muller says it's been an "appalling" week to be a National MP. 

"Simon [Bridges] I think, has handled it very well," he told The AM Show. "I know it's a very complex, sensitive issue, but I thought his performance, particularly yesterday afternoon, you saw the anger, immense anger, in his face and he was very much reflecting the anger of the other 54 MPs."

He said it was "disturbing" to see New Zealand politics walk a "similar path" to the US and UK.

9:55am - "It's deeply distressing, particularly today's news," veteran National MP Gerry Brownlee told The AM Show on Thursday morning. "We expelled him on Tuesday, and all that had been said at that point was that there was 'bad behaviour'. I don't know, but I suspect more of the detail was known to some others."

He said he doesn't know how much the party leadership knows.

"What I suspect is there was an effort to protect the women involved... Reading Melanie Reid's article this morning, I don't know how to describe it. Deeply sad."

Gerry Brownlee.
Gerry Brownlee. Photo credit: The AM Show

He said it was not a sign the party is imploding - it's just Mr Ross - and Mr Bridges has "handled it well". 

9:45am - Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater says it's "rather delicious" to see "ratbags get their beans" after what National "put me through under John Key and Bill English".

"What National needs now is a strong leader who pledges to clean up the party from the top down."