Party official quizzed in donations trial

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Seven people are defending charges in an Auckland High Court trial relating to election donations to two political parties. Times file photo Wayne Martin

A man who held a key role with the Labour Party has testified in court about an art auction the party held prior to the 2017 general election in an effort to raise money.

Seven defendants are on trial before Justice Ian Gault at the Auckland High Court in relation to donations made to the National and Labour parties.

They’ve all pleaded not guilty and are fighting the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) charges in a judge-alone trial which began on July 25.

The SFO alleges the relevant political donations were split into smaller amounts so the donor or donors did not need to be disclosed to the Electoral Commission.

Among those charged are former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, businessman Yikun Zhang, and twin brothers Shijia (Colin) Zheng, and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

Ross, Zhang and Shijia Zheng each face two charges of obtaining by deception.

Hengjia Zheng faces one charge of obtaining by deception and one charge of providing false or misleading information.

Zhang and the Zheng brothers also face charges, along with two men and a woman whose names are suppressed, in relation to a donation made to the Labour Party in 2017.

The Crown alleges the money the Labour Party raised from the art auction came from Yikun Zhang and not the five people whose names were provided to it as the buyers of five particular paintings.

The first person called to give evidence in court on Monday morning was Andre Anderson, who served as the Labour Party’s general secretary from late 2018 to early 2020.

Crown prosecutor Katie Hogan questioned him about the action the party took after news media reported in early 2020 that four people had been charged over donations made to National.

Anderson said the party reviewed its records to see if any of those people had also donated to Labour.

He said in reviewing his party email account he found emails exchanged by people involved with the Labour Party about donations the party received from the 2017 art auction.

Anderson told the court he texted one of the defendants, who has name suppression, asking if he knew about any donations Labour received from the people charged over donations made to National.

He said the defendant replied the party had not received any donations from them after the 2017 “GE”, which Anderson thought referred to that year’s general election.

He said the defendant told him the party received donations from the donors before then, “and we are careful to ensure our records are accurate”.

Defence lawyer Paul Dacre QC, representing Shijia Zheng, questioned Anderson about a media statement Labour issued about the donations it had received from people charged over donations made to National.

Dacre asked if he was confident the media statement was accurate.

“I’m confident it reflected the information we had at the time,” Anderson replied.

Defence lawyer Rosemary Thomson, representing Hengjia Zheng, also asked Anderson about the media statement.

She asked if anyone verified one part of it that described her client as an office holder with the Chao San General Association.

Anderson said he didn’t know and was unsure where that piece of information had come from.

The trial continues and is scheduled to take about 10 weeks.