Two men have been found not guilty of fraudulently depositing money into a New Zealand First Foundation account in breach of the Elections Act.
The duo faced a judge-alone trial at Auckland High Court after being charged by the Serious Fraud Office with two counts of obtaining by deception.
They were accused of transferring just under $750,000, which was used for party expenses.
Judge Pheroze Jagose issued his decision on Friday, finding the couple not guilty.
* The duo charged in the NZ First Foundation case have their names permanently removed
* Winston Peters allegedly told defendant to make sure NZ First Foundation was legal
* Lobbyists, cash and Voldemort: political donations exposed by the trial
* New Zealand’s former first MP ‘stunned’ at cost of fundraising software
* NZ First Foundation trial: Former party operations director testifies
Despite attempts by media organizations to reveal the couple’s identities before and after the last general election, Judge Jagose on Wednesday granted them the permanent deletion of their names.
None of the men charged are serving ministers or MPs or were candidates before the 2020 elections.
After the verdict was released, New Zealand leader Winston Peters issued a statement titled “Innocent Again”.
“From the time these false allegations were first raised and then perpetuated by numerous media outlets, day after day and month after month, I have maintained that there was no wrongdoing,” he said. Peters.
“Today the High Court confirmed that no crime was committed and New Zealand First was again cleared of all charges,” Peters said.
At trial, the Crown said that between 2015 and 2020, around 40 donors to the New Zealand First Party thought their donations were going to the party – but they didn’t because of a fraudulent device, a trick or a scheme by the defendants.
Instead of the party’s bank account number, five donors were given an account for a company owned by one of the defendants and 35 donors were given the account number of a trust – the New Zealand First Foundation.
Judge Jagose heard the money had been spent on a video of Winston Peters’ bus touring New Zealand, appearance fees for boxer Joseph Parker, renting and furnishing office space in Wellington for the New Zealand premier party headquarters and a tent at a racing event.
More money was spent on computer software that helped develop a fundraising database.
Many wealthy advertisers and donors said they believed they were donating directly to Peters and the party, not the foundation, the court heard.
Tudor Clee, acting for one of the defendants, said the Serious Fraud Office had no evidence of a crime under the Elections Act. None of the donors complained or were cheated, he said.
Former chief party whip and former Tauranga List MP Clayton Mitchell said he was “flabbergasted” when he found out what some donations, including computer software, were used for.
Mitchell was also concerned that the software was run by a company owned by one of the defendants.
“I was stunned to be fair…it showed how expensive it was to run a system that we thought was going to help the party and grow it…and it clearly wasn’t.”
Mitchell traveled to England at the invitation of Nigel Farage during the European Union elections, using money from the foundation on Peters’ instructions.
In Judge Jagose’s judgment, he said he was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the duo were “keeping control” of the money against a better claim.
However, he was not convinced that the money given could be considered party donations.
But, Judge Jagose said there was an occasional relationship between the dishonest scheme and the withholding of money.
Judge Jagose said there was nothing inherently dishonest about the money being obtained by any of the defendant’s accounts or by the New Zealand First Foundation.
“He was expressly sought to support the party and, as the Serious Fraud Office investigation concluded, applied himself to that end.”
“I do not accept the defendants’ assertions that the party essentially delegated all fundraising to Mr. Peters, who, by implication, must be taken to have approved of their scheme.
“To the contrary, the evidence includes handwriting attributed to Mr. Peters annotating a draft of the fundraising letter to redirect payment to the party’s bank account. And Mr. Peters’ purported endorsement would still not be effective. to acquit the regime’s qualifying dishonesty.
In Judge Jagose’s earlier name-suppression judgment, he said the principles of open justice had “largely been adhered to” in the court proceedings.
“[The first defendant’s] the identity is less important than the role he played in the conduct at issue in the charges”.
Judge Jagose ruled that publication of the defendant’s name would cause him extreme hardship.
The second defendant did not request the removal of the name, but also cannot be named because identifying him could identify his co-defendant.