Former National Party chief whip and current independent MP, Jami-Lee Ross.
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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Is the National Party off the hook over the Serious Fraud Office donations prosecution? That’s what the party is claiming, pointing out that no National official or MP has been charged.

But of course, there was a National MP involved – albeit one no longer with the party – and he is being prosecuted. In fact, at the time of the alleged offending, Jami-Lee Ross held the very senior role of Party Whip and was known to be close to Bridges. There is also no escaping the fact that the dodgy donations were made to and accepted by the National Party.

News yesterday that Jami-Lee Ross is one of the four going to trial should be a major embarrassment for National. For a very good account of what occurred yesterday, see Sam Hurley’s Jami-Lee Ross speaks out about his ‘outrageous’ SFO charges after name suppression lifts.

In terms of Ross’ surprise charge by the Serious Fraud Office, it’s worth reading Claire Trevett’s very good column today: Jami-Lee Ross SFO charges – blowing the whistle on NZ politics’ greatest own goal (paywalled).

Here’s her succinct summary: “Ross was revealed as one of four men charged by the Serious Fraud Office for alleged involvement in two donations to the National Party which had been broken up into smaller amounts to avoid disclosure. Rarely has anybody been both hero and zero at the same time. In this saga, Ross himself was the heroic whistleblower – it was he who exposed an alleged $100,000 donations rort within the National Party. That was an attempt to discredit Bridges. Instead, Ross is now in court charged with that alleged rort himself – although he has been quick to claim he is innocent and a ‘scapegoat’ for the National Party.”

Trevett nicely backgrounds how Ross came to be charged: “It was yet another twist in one of the most dramatic episodes New Zealand’s Parliament has witnessed, which began in October 2018 when Ross, full of rage, mounted a scathing attack on Bridges’ integrity. He claimed Bridges had ‘directed’ that a donation be split into smaller parts to avoid disclosure. Bridges denied it and Ross delivered an audio recording of a phone call with Bridges that proved nothing at all other than that the donation was talked about. It was Ross too who delivered papers to the police station, the media trailing him through Wellington’s streets as he went, the white knight of justice.”

She says that National should be worried: “In the court of public opinion, the entire story is a rank one for the National Party – regardless of whether they are in the dock. However it is spun, and whoever is involved, it is not a good look for the party. It fuels suspicion… National has a lot more to lose and this will now plague it in an election year, including potentially damaging evidence from those charged. Ross himself has said he will produce evidence as to whodunit”.

National is still arguing that the charges and the donations procured by Ross have little or nothing to do with them. MP Paul Goldsmith even went on TV this morning and said this about the scandal: “We’re watching it closely but it’s not relating directly to us”.

The attempts by National to distance themselves from Ross’ actions are rejected by blogger Martyn Bradbury who says: “Jami-Lee Ross is theirs, they’re responsible for him despite all their deceitful manipulations pretending he’s some rogue lone wolf” – see: Consider the distance National are pretending exists between them and Jami-Lee Ross.

Bradbury argues that Ross “joined National early & rose through the ranks because of the dark skill set they are now damning him for. His head kicker schtick and House of Cards ethics were crafted by the National Party hierarchy who saw talent in his Stormtrooper ways. He became a whip, he was a bag man for the boss, he was muscle for political kneecappings.”

He believes the court trial will end badly for National: “The JLR charges by the SFO are the worst outcome for National. It means the bloody thing won’t die now and could possibly play out in Court during the election. That’s a lot of air time for JLR to endlessly claim Simon is corrupt and release the rest of his hidden evidence.”

Electoral law expert Andrew Geddis said some similar things on RNZ’s Morning Report today: “One of the persons that has been charged is Jami-Lee Ross, who was Chief Whip under Simon Bridges, and was for a while their party ‘bagman’ in Auckland, whose job was to go around raising very big sums of money from particularly the Chinese community to fund the party business. And one two occasions, according to the Serious Fraud Office, he did so unlawfully. Now, how closely voters want to tie Jami-Lee Ross – who was a National Party MP – to the existing party, well, I guess that’s what we are going to be discussing” – see: National Party can’t separate itself from fraud charges against Jami-Lee Ross – expert.

He also suggests that the trial is unlikely to take place before the election – although “that doesn’t of course stop Jami-Lee Ross continuing to speak out if he so wishes”.

Geddis also wrote last month – when the SFO first announced their decision to charge four individuals – speculating on whether this might damage National. He suggesting it would depend on “the degree of culpability that the public assigns to National for being associated with this sort of allegedly unlawful behaviour. Will National be seen as complicit in the alleged offending, or a victim of it?” – see: A political donations powderkeg: on SFO criminal charges and the National Party.

He argued that “the fact no charges may have been laid against them does not necessarily mean that Bridges and the National Party can claim to be completely blameless in this matter.”

And he outlined why he’s not surprised that no National officials, or the party leader, have been charged: “For Bridges to be charged, he pretty much would have to had explicitly told donors something like, ‘I want you to give my party this money in this illegal way.’ Now, much as I know that plenty of inner-city, kombucha drinking liberal types like to hate on our Simon, no political party leader would be that stupid. Not even Simon Bridges. And the National Party secretary’s legal responsibility really amounts to little more than receiving and recording donations, before passing on limited information about those donations to the Electoral Commission. When doing so, he’s entitled to simply rely on what he’s told by donors to the party without having to try and independently verify that it is the truth.”

Some of these questions are also raised briefly in today’s Dominion Post editorial: “More importantly for voters in 2020, it will be hard for Bridges to plausibly claim he had nothing to do with the donations. He too is under pressure” – see: Songs, jokes and serious fraud in New Zealand politics.

National and Bridges are very lucky that this scandal has only fully hit the courts amidst controversy over the NZ First Foundation donations, as the public might be less inclined to follow the detail or see this behaviour as particularly unique.

And due to its own predicament, NZ First is unable to lead the charge against National in their usual manner. Labour and the Greens are also somewhat hamstrung, given that they have chosen not to take a hard line against NZ First over their donations scandal.

The quietness of National’s rivals is already being noted. RNZ says: “Even leaders of other parties like NZ First’s Winston Peters and Green co-leader James Shaw were reluctant to pass comment. ‘You hear of the sub judice rule? Well start observing it,’ Peters said to reporters. Shaw said he couldn’t comment on the particulars of the case, because it is part of a judicial process” – see: National Party donations case: ‘I am now being painted as the scapegoat’ – Jami-Lee Ross.

This will leave most of the debate to commentators and bloggers. And Labour Party blogger Greg Presland has sarcastically mocked Bridges’ apparent pleas of innocence in regard to the scandal – see: National has nothing to be afraid of.

Here’s his list of how little Bridges supposedly knows about what has gone on: “Simon Bridges himself had no idea what was happening. He has not met Zhang Yikun or Colin Zheng or had dinner at their home. He was not told that they wanted to make a $100,000 donation to the National Party. He was not told by Jami-Lee Ross that the money had been paid. He was not going to spend the money on attack ads. He was not aware that the money had been paid into the National Party Botany account. He was not told that the donation would be made by multiple people belonging to one association. He was not aware that the expectation behind the donation was having two Chinese MPs. He did not know that the donation was carved up into non declarable little pieces and transmitted to head office. Colin Zheng has not put his name forward for National’s candidate’s school.”

And even National-aligned blogger David Farrar admits the case is “very embarrassing for National” – see: SFO files charges in National Party donations case. He says: “Even though the party presumably (if correct the charges are against the donors only) did nothing wrong (in fact HQ insisted on getting details for each donor, and verifying they were eligible to donate), it is still a bad look to have charges laid in relation to a donation to you. At a minimum the party should, once the legal issues are dealt with, refund the donation.”

Finally, there are still questions about the twists and turns regarding the name suppression originally granted to the four men, which was lifted yesterday. For an interesting discussion by a journalist involved in this saga, see Barry Soper’s If Jami-Lee Ross didn’t want name suppression why did his lawyers threaten me?