Mental health factor in former National MP Jami-Lee Ross' not guilty verdict

Amy Williams for RNZ

Former National MP Jami-Lee Ross has been cleared of fraud charges over political donations in part because the judge agreed a sense of betrayal and mental breakdown could have led him to lie.

High Court Justice Ian Gault delivered his verdicts this week then released his decision detailing the reasons.

He said "given Mr Ross' sense of betrayal and the mental health evidence" he could not rule out the possibility Ross was "so driven by a desire to take down Mr [Simon] Bridges that he lied in the most compelling way he could imagine, that is by falsely stating he had carried out Mr Bridges' instructions.

"For these reasons, I am not sure that Mr Ross engaged in a fraudulent device, trick, or stratagem."

The Crown alleged three separate donations were split into smaller amounts among "sham donors" to avoid triggering the disclosure limit and to keep party officials, the Electoral Commission and the public in the dark about the identity of the true donor - businessman Yikun Zhang.

Ross and three businessmen - Yikun Zhang, Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng - were charged by the Serious Fraud Office over donations made to the National Party in 2017 and 2018.

Justice Gault found Zhang not guilty in relation to the National Party donation in 2017 but guilty of the donation in 2018.

Colin Zheng was found guilty in relation to the 2017 and 2018 donation.

Joe Zheng was found guilty in relation to the 2018 donation and guilty of obstructing a Serious Fraud Office investigation.

The three businessmen also faced charges - alongside two men and a woman, who all have interim name suppression - over donations made to the Labour Party in 2017. Justice Gault found they were all not guilty in relation to that donation.

Ross was acquitted on all charges.

With regards to the National Party donations, the Crown claimed that Ross knew that Yikun Zhang - or Zhang and Colin Zheng - were donating $100,000 to the party but that others were being proffered as sham donors, and that Ross provided the list of sham donors to the National Party secretary.

Justice Gault said in his decision that the evidence did not show that Ross knew that Zhang or Colin Zheng personally were donating $100,000 to the National Party in 2017 or that Ross knew of the donation splitting.

He said Ross would have been at no advantage to ask for the donation to be split.

Regarding the 2018 donation, Justice Gault said the timeline of Ross' deteriorating mental health was not clear, but he had "previously suffered from poor mental health at pinch-points over the years".

Ross' lawyer Ron Mansfield KC said in the trial that his client's first lie was his March 2018 message to Bridges when he said that he would "suck it up" or "go kamikaze".

By mid-May 2018, Ross was secretly recording conversations.

Justice Gault said that by August 2018 when Ross leaked Bridges' travel expenses, "he was clearly motivated to destroy Bridges' political standing".

"Mr Ross' predominant focus was on harming Mr Bridges, making allegations he knew to be false without caring whether he also caused harm to himself," Justice Gault said.

"He knew his political career was over and it seems he did not expect to remain around to suffer personal consequences. If he appeared highly functioning or controlled, that was a veneer."