Trips to China detailed in court trial

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Seven people are standing trial at the Auckland High Court over election donations. Times photo Wayne Martin

The details of trips to China by a New Zealand politician have been discussed in a trial relating to election donations.

Seven defendants including disgraced former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross are on trial before Justice Ian Gault at the Auckland High Court.

They’re facing charges laid by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over donations made to the National and Labour parties in 2017 and 2018.

On trial alongside Ross over donations to National are businessmen Yikun Zhang, Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

Ross, Zhang, and Colin Zheng each face two counts of obtaining by deception.

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

The Crown alleges two large donations made to National in 2017 and 2018 were split into smaller amounts and the identity of the true donor or donors was not disclosed to the Electoral Commission.

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

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

The first witness called to give evidence in court on Monday this week was Southland District mayor Gary Tong.

He was on a trip in southern China with Zhang and others in October 2018 when news broke in New Zealand of allegations Ross had publicly made about a donation made to National earlier that year.

Crown prosecutor Katie Hogan asked Tong about his knowledge of the defendants.

Tong said he’d first met Zhang at a function in Invercargill, Southland, and he later met Colin Zheng at a restaurant in Auckland.

He said Ross was at the function in Invercargill and he may have been at the Auckland restaurant.

Tong said he and Zhang became friends and they worked together to have the Southland District establish a sister city relationship with the city of Shantou in southern China.

He said he twice travelled with Zhang and other people to Shantou as part of that effort.

He was accompanied by Zhang and Colin Zheng on the second trip to Shantou in October 2018.

“We looked at a technical village and cultural aspects of China and I started getting calls from New Zealand and American news media.”

Tong said the enquiries he received related to Ross’s allegations about the political donation.

He said he spoke to Zhang during the trip and Zhang said he wasn’t involved in it.

“The conversation took place in a vehicle on the side of the highway in southern China.

“I asked him, ‘are you involved in any donation?’ and it was a straight ‘no’.”

Ross’s defence counsel Ron Mansfield QC asked Tong if he knew who had paid for his travel to China.

Tong said he believed the cost was covered by Shantou city and the Chao Shan General Association, of which Zhang had served as chairman.

The trial continues and is set down to take about 10 weeks.