High Court trial over Labour, National donations begins

The High Court trial relating to charges over political donations to both the Labour Party and National Party has begun in Auckland.

Seven people, including former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and three Chinese businessmen, are facing charges by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

Ross arrived at the Auckland High Court on Tuesday, charged alongside Chinese businessmen Yikun Zhang and brothers Colin and Joe Zheng in connection to donations made to the National Party in 2017 and 2018.

Those three are also charged along with three others in relation to election donations made to the Labour Party in 2017.

Joe Zheng is also accused of lying and providing false documents to the SFO, which he denies.

The case involving National stems from accusations made by Ross against then-party leader Simon Bridges in 2018.

"Simon Bridges is a corrupt politician," Ross said at the time.

Five months later those allegations were investigated by the SFO after being passed on by Police.

Fast forward another four years and the case is finally being heard in the High Court.

"The defendants in this case engaged in a series of fraudulent, devised tricks or strategies that were intended to, and did, deceive the secretaries of the Labour Party and the National Party, and thereby the Electoral Commission, ultimately the public," said Crown prosecutor John Dixon.

In National's case, the defendants are accused of obtaining a $100,000 donation and splitting it into amounts of less than the $15,000 threshold, at which political parties must publicly disclose the identity of the donors. 

"Both men were sophisticated and informed when it comes to NZ politics, so sir the evidence will clearly establish Mr Ross had no involvement in any fraud or scheme," said Hannah Stuart, Ross' defence lawyer.

They are also charged over a further donation of $100,050 in 2018.

Meanwhile, the Labour case relates to the purchase of five paintings for a payment of $60,000, which the SFO claims was split between five different names to give the illusion of five separate donations. 

"Mr Yikun purchased five paintings, that is not in dispute … but with intent to conceal the true identity of the donor to the Labour Party, he says he was not a party to that scheme," said John Katz QC.

The court has begun hearing from witnesses and the trial is expected to last 10 weeks.