There are concerns within New Zealand First that the Serious Fraud Office could derail the party’s election campaign.
In April the SFO’s Director, Julie Read, said the office was on track to complete its investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation and confirm whether any charges would be laid before election day.
But Parliament rose yesterday and Writ Day, which is the formal regulatory start to the election campaign, is only nine days away on August 16.
Obviously were the office to announce any charges, even from now, would leave NZ First without a chance to defend itself but with a heavy smear hanging over it for the duration of the campaign.
An SFO spokesperson has confirmed to POLITIK that Read’s April statement stands; that the office expects to make the announcements before the election.
NZ First Leader Winston Peters was untypically tight-lipped when asked about this as he walked into Parliament yesterday.
“I’m getting on with my campaign,” he said.
Asked if he was contemplating trying to take any action against the Serious Fraud office, he said: “Let me just tell you, I’m contemplating going out there and doing extraordinarily well in this campaign.”
His refusal to confirm or deny the possibility that he might take action lends weight to suggestions tons in Auckland legal circles that that that is precisely what NZ First might do; that they could injunct the Serious Fraud Office to prevent them from laying any charges before election day.
The Minister in Charge of the Serious Fraud Office, Stuart Nash, who is known to be personally close to some NZ First MPs, also refused to say anything.
He said it would be inappropriate to do so.
And NZ First Minister, Shane Jones was also tightlipped.
“I’ve got nothing to say in relation to where that exercise this up to,” he said.
“They’re an incredibly independent body.”
But sources close to NZ First say that privately the MPs are furious that there is now a possibility they could face the same sort of situation that Hilary Clinton did during the last American Presidential election campaign when the FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress 10 days before polling day about her use of a private server for State Department emails.
“The letter, which said the FBI had ‘learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation’ into the private email server that Clinton used as secretary of state, upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperilling her position in the Electoral College,” said the website, “FiveThirtyEight” which is regarded as an authority on US political polling.
The NZ First investigation came after police handed a complaint from the Electoral Commission last November to the Serious Fraud Office.
That followed reports by RNZ about the way the foundation had been handling donations, and questions about disclosure and donors’ identities.
It referred the matter to the police, who promptly sent it to the Serious Fraud Office last week.
The commission said it had formed the view the secretive foundation had received donations that should have been treated as donations to New Zealand First.
“The Commission does not have the investigative powers to form a view about whether this failure to transmit and the non-disclosure means offences have been committed,” the commission said.
On February 18 the SFO issued a terse press statement.
” The Serious Fraud Office has today commenced an investigation in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation,” was all it said.
Then on April 18 there was a second statement in the name of the director, Julie Read.
“The SFO’s pre-lockdown timetable for the investigation in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation would see us completing the investigation before the September election date,” she said.
At this stage, we are progressing the investigation under the current lockdown restrictions and are still on track to complete it within that timeframe.”
And on Wednesday the SFO spokesperson confirmed there was no update on that statement.
The problem for NZ First is that Serious Fraud Office cases move very slowly.
On February 25 the defendants in the National Party donations case pleaded not guilty to charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office.
Those charges related to a complaint made to the SFO in March, 2019.
The four men entered their pleas today during their first appearance in the Auckland District Court.
Yikun Zhang (48), Shijia (Colin) Zheng (34) and Jami-Lee Matenga Ross (34) each faced two charges of ‘Obtaining by deception’. Hengjia (Joe) Zheng (34) faced one charge of ‘Obtaining by deception’ under the Crimes Act and another of ‘Providing false or misleading information’ under the Serious Fraud Office Act.
The charges relate to donations paid to the National Party.
Their trial is not expected to take place until September next year, 30 months after the original complaint.
On that time scale, if any NZ First people were to be charged, their trial might not be until 2022.
Thirty months is a very long time in politics.
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