NZ First Foundation case: Accused pair lose suppression argument against SFO, NZ Herald and other media

Two people charged by the Serious Fraud Office after an investigation into the NZ First Foundation have lost an argument for continued name suppression.

Last month, a hearing was held in the North Shore District Court to debate whether both defendants should be named in the case over allegations of improper political donations.

Today, Judge Deidre Orchard released her judgment to the parties involved, including the Herald and a consortium of other media organisations which opposed suppression.

Judge Orchard said the first defendant, who made the application for continued secrecy, “failed to demonstrate that publication will lead to extreme hardship, and, of course, that is the test”.

“While I accept that this prosecution has attracted considerable media interest, both from the mainstream media and others, including bloggers, I do not accept that if the suppression order is lifted [suppressed name] is likely not to receive a fair trial.

“The New Zealand courts have dealt with cases where there has been extensive, and in some cases very damaging pre-trial publicity on a regular basis and successfully. Modern juries are reminded of the need to disregard and pre-trial publicity they may be aware of at the beginning, the end, and during the trial.”

The first defendant, who called on controversial and well-known blogger Cameron Slater to support the suppression bid with an affidavit, has complained the case has been “politicised” and is an attack on NZ First leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

But Judge Orchard said in her decision: “This ignores the fact that the prosecution alleges impropriety in the way funds have been solicited from donors to a prominent New Zealand political party … In my view the subject matter is inherently political. It is bound to attract considerable media attention and that attention is legitimate.”

While Judge Orchard dismissed the application for suppression she maintained the status quo until 9am on December 14, or until such a time as an appeal is filed and dealt with by the High Court.

While the second defendant has not applied for suppression they also can not be identified until a potential appeal is determined.

They two accused have denied the allegations and have pleaded not guilty.

Both have elected trial by jury and are on bail until they next appear in court in January.

The SFO laid the obtaining by deception charges against them in September.

Neither of the accused is a minister, sitting MP, was a candidate in the 2020 election or a member of their staff, or a current member of the New Zealand First political party.

Charging documents allege the pair deposited $746,881 between September 30, 2015 and February 14 this year with “intent to deceive the donors of the monies, the party secretary of the New Zealand First Party and/or the Electoral Commission”.

“The defendants adopted a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem, whereby party donations for the party were paid into the bank accounts of [suppressed] and the New Zealand First Foundation and not notified to the party secretary, or declared by the party secretary to the Electoral Commission,” the court papers read.

“Those undeclared funds thereby became available to [suppressed]/New Zealand First Foundation to use as the defendants saw fit, and were used to pay expenses of the party and to develop a fundraising database for the benefit of the party and [suppressed].”

Before last month’s general election, a group of media companies, including the Herald’s publisher NZME, unsuccessfully argued the duo should be named before voters entered the ballot box.

NZ First had also attempted to stop the charges becoming public until after a government had been formed.

Peters has distanced himself from the foundation – reported to have bankrolled the political party – and has denied any wrongdoing after it first came under scrutiny last November.

After the charges became public, Peters claimed at a press conference that he and the party were “exonerated”.

He was also highly critical of the SFO and its decision to lay charges so close to the election, threatening legal action against the prosecution office.

After dozens of media reports last year, largely led by an RNZ and Stuff investigation, the Electoral Commission announced in February it believed the foundation had received donations it should have treated as party donations.

It referred the matter to police, which then passed it on to the SFO.

Source: Read Full Article