NZ First Foundation lawsuit: Ex-staff lifts curtain on party funding issues

Two people are facing charges after a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the NZ First Foundation. “No party members have been implicated or charged by the SFO,” NZ First leader Winston Peters told reporters. Video / Will Trafford

The former chief operating officer of New Zealand First said he often funded the party’s expenses himself, while Winston Peters was frustrated by the lack of fundraising efforts.

Political consultant Apirana Dawson’s comments came as he gave evidence this morning in the early stages of the High Court trial of two men accused of staging a fraudulent scheme to conceal nearly $750,000 in party donations.

The duo, who continue to benefit from the temporary name deletion despite years of opposition from the Herald and several other media organizations, face two charges each of obtaining by deception. They deny the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) allegations.

Dawson, who first joined NZ First as a trainee of Chief Peters in 2005, told the court some of the inner workings of the party, office gossip and funding issues in recent years .

He said he had discussions with the former deputy prime minister, described as a fan of sausage fundraisers, about modernizing the party and its donations process.

The consultant, who helped run the 2015 Northland by-election and NZ First 2017 general election campaigns, said Peters had expressed frustration at the lack of fundraising efforts from members party.

Other New Zealand political parties are “asking their members to tithe,” Dawson said.

“There was not a consistent level of support [at NZ First]things would be delayed or postponed,” he said. “I was frustrated because the deputies did not want to make an effort [into] fundraising in their constituencies.

Dawson, who also worked for Labor between 2008 and 2011, said he would regularly pay party expenses before seeking reimbursement, including for a new computer system to use as a fundraising database.

The court received several emails between Dawson, the two defendants and Peters requesting payment from the NationBuilder management system, including one where he said he spoke to the person “who holds the purse strings”.

Dawson said most major New Zealand parties, the Australian Labor Party and political campaigns in the United States have used the software.

The need to create a greater flow of funds was also one of the reasons the New Zealand First Foundation (NZFF) was set up, the court heard.

Dawson said he understood the NZFF would help “ensure the long-term viability of the party, receiving donations, investing them, that sort of thing.”

John Dixon QC (standing) is pursuing the case alongside Paul Wicks QC for the SFO.  Photo/Michael Craig
John Dixon QC (standing) is pursuing the case alongside Paul Wicks QC for the SFO. Photo/Michael Craig

SFO lawyers told the court over a period of more than four years to the start of 2020 that some 40 donors believed their donations were going directly to the NZ First party. But, prosecutor Paul Wicks QC said the money was instead deposited in accounts linked to NZFF and one of the defendant’s private companies.

Several donor statements were read out in court and suggest most were unaware of the difference, if any, between NZ First and NZFF.

‘I thought we were donating to the NZ First party to support their campaign,’ one said.

The SFO accused the defendants of deploying a fraudulent device, trick or scheme to mislead the New Zealand First Party Secretary and the Electoral Commission and retain control of the donation money.

Wicks told the court the couple “spent it however they saw fit” on a range of expenses and celebratory endeavors, including renting and furnishing offices on Wellington’s Lambton Quay for the ” New Zealand First Party Head Office”.

Dawson said he and Peters, who is not on the SFO witness list, visited the office.

Other expenses included an appearance fee of nearly $10,000 for Kiwi boxing champion Joseph Parker to attend a party conference and a $25,000 video of Peters touring New Zealand on a bus.

Wicks told the court it was irrelevant that the money was used for the benefit of NZ First.

“This case is not about the use of money but about exercising control over that money,” he explained.

“It was up to the party to decide and control how they wanted to spend their money, not up to the defendants to do so.”

Election law requires a political party secretary to submit an annual report of donations to the Election Commission, however, Wicks said none of the donations over the four-year period were counted.

For donations over $15,000 in a calendar year, the identity of the donor must also be noted.

“The defendants knew the requirements of election law and chose not to follow them,” Wicks alleged.

Judge Pheroze Jagose presides over the trial.  Photo/Michael Craig
Judge Pheroze Jagose presides over the trial. Photo/Michael Craig

In an opening statement for the defense yesterday, barrister Tudor Clee said the NZFF money had been used as the party intended.

“We ask the question: where is the deception? The party leadership was not deceived,” he said.

At the time the SFO brought the charges in September 2020, none of the defendants were ministers, incumbent MPs, 2020 election candidates or members of their staff, or current members of NZ First.

NZ First also tried unsuccessfully to prevent the charges from becoming public until a government was formed after the 2020 election.

The judge-alone trial before Judge Pheroze Jagose in Auckland is continuing.

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