Andrew Little tells court he was distanced from donations in 'sham donors' trial

Andrew Little tells court he was distanced from donations in 'sham donors' trial
Andrew Little tells court he was distanced from donations in 'sham donors' trial Photo credit: Getty Images

By Amy Williams RNZ

Former Labour Party leader Andrew Little and the Prime Minister's chief press secretary have appeared as witnesses in a trial about anonymous donations to the country's two biggest political parties.

The Crown's case is that the Labour and National parties, the Electoral Commission and the public were "kept in the dark" about donations that were split into small amounts so as to avoid disclosing the identity of the true donor.

The trial, in the High Court in Auckland, is the result of a four-year investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

A one-off anonymous donation of $35,000 - an auction the Crown alleges was a ruse - is the focus of the Labour Party case.

The Crown said the party was told the donation was on behalf of five donors who paid money for paintings sold at an auction in 2017, but the money was transferred to Labour as one lump sum.

The current health minister, Andrew Little, told the court he attended a fund-raising event in 2017.

"There were some performances, some speeches, I spoke, we then had the banner signing, the inevitable photographs and selfies and there was an auction of sorts."

Little said he attended the event to support the Chao Shan General Association's bid to host an international convention in Auckland, and he signed a letter in support.

"I've subsequently been told it was intended to raise funds for the Labour Party. I wasn't aware of that at the time. The basis in which I was attending that event was to support the Chao Shan Association's bid for this world event."

The man the Crown alleges was the true donor, Yikun Zhang, founded the Chao Shan Association to support Chinese migrants and was its chairman at the time.

He later received a royal honour, which the Crown said he was seeking at the time some of the donations were made.

Zhang is among seven people including former National MP Jami-Lee Ross who are defending charges related to electoral fraud.

Three of the defendants, Zhang, his right-hand-man Colin Zheng and Zheng's twin brother Joe Zheng, face charges related to donations made to both parties.

The court heard how the Labour Party started to look into donations it had received after the three businessmen were charged alongside Ross over donations to the National Party in 2020.

The trio were then charged over donations to the Labour Party in 2021, alongside three others who have name suppression.

In his opening statements, Crown lawyer John Dixon QC said two of those with name suppression in the Labour Party case were party insiders who put forward the sham donors as the true donors.

"The party secretary, the Electoral Commission, the public at large were kept in the dark and that resulted in the true donor obtaining the benefit of having made a large donation with the knowledge of that insider but without public disclosure of their identity."

Little told the court he remained distanced from donations and had advised other MPs to do the same.

"When it comes to the mechanics of fundraising asking for a donation, collecting a donation and processing it - the advice always was MPs should not be involved in that, that is a matter for party officials and the party organisation," he said.

"I went to, for example, organised party auctions knowing it was a fundraising activity. I played no role in the collection of funds raised or donations sought."

The Crown will submit evidence showing some of the defendants tried to cover up the split donation in 2020 when the Labour Party started looking into the matter.

The prime minister's chief press secretary, Andrew Campbell, told the court he asked questions within the party after receiving media enquiries.

"There had been a donation made but it took me some time to work out the exact nature of that donation and how it came about."

Campbell said he was not told the specifics of how the donation was made by those inside the party at the time.

Court hears SFO interview with Colin Zheng

Also on Friday, one of the men accused of concealing two large donations to the National Party said former MP Jami-Lee Ross advised him to split the amount into smaller parts and avoid disclosure.

In an interview with the Serious Fraud Office played in the High Court today, Colin Zheng said Ross encouraged him to make a donation in 2017.

Zheng told the SFO he split the $100,000 donation amongst friends and family on Ross's advice.

He said he agreed to do this because Ross was a good friend.

The pair are among seven people defending charges related to concealed donations.

The Crown alleges three separate donations were split into smaller amounts among "sham donors" to avoid triggering the disclosure limit and hide the identity of the true donor.

The trial in Auckland is set to continue for another eight weeks.