Serious Fraud Office lays charges against two over New Zealand First Foundation donations

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has charged two people in the New Zealand First Foundation over donations, and it has confirmed they are not sitting MPs, ministers or candidates. 

"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," it said in a statement on Tuesday

The defendants have interim name suppression and so cannot be named at this time. But neither defendant is a minister, sitting MP, or candidate in the upcoming election, a staff member or a current member the NZ First party. 

NZ First leader Winston Peters said in a press conference that while he respected the SFO's investigation and its independence, it "could not justify" the timing of its decision to announce the findings of its probe. 

"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," he said.

"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."

He said the SFO has "acted unreasonably and without justification" in the way in which the probe had been conducted and in public announcements the SFO made about it. 

Peters has instructed lawyers to issue proceedings in the High Court against the SFO accusing it of abusing its statutory powers and unreasonableness. 

He said he was not interviewed by the SFO for the investigation.

"I was sent a series of questions which I was pleased to answer and I said from the very beginning that New Zealand First wished to cooperate with the SFO way back when these allegations were first made."

NZ First was on 1.5 percent in Newshub's latest poll

What was the investigation?

The Electoral Commission said in February it believed the NZ First Foundation had received donations which should have been treated as party donations and had referred the matter to police to investigate.

"In the commission's view, the donations were not properly transmitted to the party and not disclosed as required by the Electoral Act 1993," it said.

The police referred it to the SFO on February 11 and a week later a formal investigation was launched into the NZ First Foundation

It followed revelations by Stuff and RNZ that purportedly showed the NZ First Foundation - which had been bankrolling the party - received undeclared donations from wealthy figures in fisheries, horse-racing and business.

Nearly $500,000 was deposited into the NZ First Foundation bank account between April 2017 and August 2019, according to the reports, and in some cases at amounts just below the $15,000 threshold for making donors' names public by law.

The money, allegedly used for party expenses without being declared, included $38,000 on the NZ First party's campaign headquarters and hiring boxer Joseph Parker to speak at the 2017 NZ First conference.

Peters blasted the allegations as "filthy" and "without any proof".

He told Magic Talk in November 2019 all of the loans NZ First received from the NZ First Foundation had been paid back, and those making the donations were entitled to privacy.

But after the Electoral Commission said it believed the NZ First Foundation had received donations which should have been treated as party donations, Peters said arrangements for party donations would be reviewed.

The SFO said in April it was on track to make a call before the election on whether to lay charges in relation to the NZ First Foundation, after it faced challenges because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Peters questioned why the SFO made that confirmation in April.

"Why they said that – no one understands, I've asked countless lawyers with very great familiarity, as to why they would possibly say a thing like that, when they had other investigations underway. The SFO needs to explain why there wasn't the same priority where other investigations were concerned."

The SFO is yet to make an announcement on its investigation into donations made to the Labour Party in 2017

It is also investigating a donation made to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff in 2016 and donations from Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel's supporters during 2019's mayoral race.

The SFO earlier this year laid charges against four people in relation to two donations worth more than $100,000 to the National Party.

One of those charged was former National MP and now Advance NZ leader Jami-Lee Ross.