Investigator testifies in donations case

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Yikun Zhang, who’s on trial over election donations, received a Royal Honour from Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy in 2018. Photo supplied

A defence lawyer has vigorously questioned a key Crown witness in a trial over election donations made to New Zealand’s two largest political parties.

On trial before Justice Ian Gault at the Auckland High Court over alleged wrongdoing in relation to donations to the National Party are former rogue Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and businessmen Yikun Zhang, Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng.

Ross, Zhang, and Colin Zheng each face two charges 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 as legally required.

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

The Crown alleges the money the party raised at the event came from Zhang and not the five people whose names were provided to the party as the buyers of the same number of paintings.

Called to give evidence in court on Monday this week was the Serious Fraud Office’s (SFO) lead investigator in the case, Lee Taylor.

He was questioned by defence lawyer Lauren Lindsay, who with John Katz QC is representing Zhang.

Lindsay asked Taylor about the 170 notices the SFO had issued to people, companies and organisations during its investigation.

The notices are made in an effort to obtain information relevant to the case.

The court heard the SFO had obtained “millions of documents” during the course of its enquiries.

Taylor said he had conducted 30 interviews with people in the National Party donations case and 25 interviews in the Labour Party case.

Lindsay asked Taylor about communication sent to Zhang on behalf of Labour general secretary Andrew Kirton thanking Zhang for his generosity to the party.

She asked Taylor if he had raised that with Kirton or Zhang during their interviews with the SFO. Taylor said he hadn’t.

Lindsay asked Taylor about a letter Labour provided to the SFO that the party had sent to Zhang about a Chinese imperial robe he’d purchased during a party fundraiser.

She asked Taylor if he’d asked interviewees about the letter. Taylor said he hadn’t.

He acknowledged he hadn’t asked Zhang or then-Labour Party president Nigel Haworth about the letter during their interviews with the SFO.

Lindsay asked Taylor if he agreed that letter and others were an “obvious topic” to have discussed during the interviews.

Taylor said in hindsight they should have been raised.

Lindsay also questioned Taylor about an effort by Labour to target high net-worth donors who were able to donate amounts to the party of over $15,000, which is the threshold where the identity of the donor needs to be declared.

She asked Taylor if he’d raised that with Haworth during his SFO interview. Taylor said he hadn’t.

The judge-alone trial is set down to take 10 weeks and is at the halfway point.