NZ First Foundation investigation: SFO’s political donations case against accused duo heads to High Court

Two people charged over allegations of improper political donations involving the New Zealand First Foundation will now see their case play out in the High Court.

Today, Judge Peter Winter made a protocol determination to move the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) prosecution from the North Shore District Court to the High Court at Auckland.

The case was transferred because of the seriousness of the charges, likelihood of public concern, workloads of the High and District Courts and the general interests of justice, the judge explained.

The SFO was in favour of the High Court seizing the case, while the move was opposed by one of the accused.

The court also heard today one of the accused was seeking to have his charge dismissed.

Both men continue to enjoy name suppression and have pleaded not guilty to an obtaining by deception charge – laid by the SFO last September.

A trial date is also yet to be set for the pair, neither of whom is a minister, sitting MP, was a candidate in the 2020 election or a member of their staff, or a current member of the New Zealand First political party.

SFO prosecutor John Dixon QC added at today’s hearing that “a great deal of material” has been disclosed to the duo.

“It’s in hand, it’s a big case, but we do expect disclosure to be wrapped up in the next month,” he said.

An initial hearing in the High Court has been scheduled for February 9.

Last month, Judge Deidre Orchard dismissed an application by one of the pair for continued suppression.

However, an appeal has been filed against the decision with the High Court, which keeps the current suppression orders in place until a ruling on the challenge.

Suppression has been opposed by the SFO and a consortium of media organisations, including the Herald’s publisher NZME, which unsuccessfully attempted to name the pair before last year’s election.

The NZ First Party had also attempted to stop the charges becoming public until after a government was formed.

The first defendant has complained the case has been “politicised” and is an attack on NZ First leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

Judge Orchard, however, has said this ignores that the prosecution alleges impropriety in the way funds have been solicited from donors to a prominent New Zealand political party.

“In my view the subject matter is inherently political. It is bound to attract considerable media attention and that attention is legitimate,” she said in her decision last month.

Charging documents allege the pair deposited $746,881 between September 30, 2015 and February 14 last year with “intent to deceive the donors of the monies, the party secretary of the New Zealand First Party and/or the Electoral Commission”.

“The defendants adopted a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem, whereby party donations for the party were paid into the bank accounts of [suppressed] and the New Zealand First Foundation and not notified to the party secretary, or declared by the party secretary to the Electoral Commission,” the court papers read.

“Those undeclared funds thereby became available to [suppressed]/New Zealand First Foundation to use as the defendants saw fit, and were used to pay expenses of the party and to develop a fundraising database for the benefit of the party and [suppressed].”

Peters, meanwhile, has distanced himself from the foundation – reported to have bankrolled the political party – and has denied any wrongdoing after it first came under scrutiny in November 2019.

After the charges became public, Peters claimed at a press conference that he and the party were “exonerated”.

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