NZ First Foundation pair charged over SFO probe

NZ First leader Winston Peters is vowing legal action against the Serious Fraud Office after its probe into the NZ First Foundation.

Two people associated with the foundation have been charged with obtaining by deception.

"The defendants have interim name suppression and so cannot be named or identified at this time," the SFO said in a statement late this afternoon.

"We note, however, that neither defendant is a Minister, sitting MP, or candidate in the upcoming election (or a member of their staff), or a current member of the New Zealand First party."

Peters said the probe exonerates his party of "any electoral law breaches" and announcement is a relief after months of this cloud hanging over it.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has always said the NZ First Foundation's activities were...
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has always said the NZ First Foundation's activities were legal. Photo: NZ Herald
The foundation was approved by the NZ First party's board in March 2017. Its activities came under scrutiny over whether it loaned or provided money to the party for purposes that benefit the party and its MPs, and if so, whether these have been properly declared.

Peters told reporters this evening that all MPs and ministers, candidates and party employees have been cleared of wrongdoing: "No party member has been implicated or charged by the SFO."

He was highly critical of the SFO and said NZ First would now seek a High Court declaration that the SFO had abused its statutory powers.

Just three weeks before the general election, the  timing of the decision to lay charges against two defendants of the NZ First Foundation was "an appalling intrusion" and a "James Comey level error of judgment ", Peters told media.

"The SFO cannot justify the timing of its decision."

It was one day before overseas voting started and a few days before advanced voting started.

Peters said the distinction that the party was "entirely separate" from the foundation would be lost on some.

The SFO had acted unreasonably and without justification in the way in which the investigation was conducted, and NZ First lawyers would seek a High Court declaration that the SFO had abused its statutory powers, he said.

He compared it with the National Party SFO investigation, the SFO probe into Labour mayoral candidates in Auckland and in Christchurch, and into donations to the Labour Party in 2017.

The SFO announcement comes at a time when NZ First has been struggling in polls, registering only 1% in yesterday's 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll.

Peters has always said he believed the foundation's work was above board and at arm's length from the party.

The party's returns show that the foundation was listed as having made a loan of $73,000 to NZ First for 2017, $76,622 for 2018 and $44,923 for 2019.

RNZ reported that the foundation collected donations of more than $500,000 from April 2017 to March 2019.

During that period, the foundation reportedly spent more than $425,000 on campaign advertising expenses, political consultants' fees, renting and setting up a campaign HQ in Wellington, and running the party's website.

Apparent discrepancies between the foundation's accounts and the party's donation returns have raised questions around whether record-keeping was properly done and whether donation disclosure laws were properly followed.

In February this year, the Electoral Commission said it believed the foundation "has received donations which should have been treated as party donations for the New Zealand First Party".

The matter was referred to police, and then the SFO, which said that its investigation would conclude in time to be in front of voters before the original election date of September 19. 

However, the outbreak of a Covid-19 cluster in Auckland meant the election would now be held on October 17.

 

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