Tape embarrasses but doesn’t convict Bridges

National leader Simon Bridges says Jami-Lee Ross’ secret recording doesn’t back up the accusations of electoral fraud.

Bridges fronted media on Wednesday evening, after Ross released a taped phone call between himself and Bridges which he claimed proved the party leader had tampered with donations to hide the source.

The conversation was in relation to a $100,000 donation to the National Party from Auckland businessman Zhang Yikun, following a dinner at Zhang’s house and a subsequent fundraiser.

The tape does not incriminate Bridges but Ross said there were other untaped conversations between the pair that did.

Bridges denied any further conversations, and any wrongdoing, including ever breaking electoral law.

“He has defamed me, and he is a liar.”

The National leader said he did attend a dinner at Zhang’s house and a fundraiser, where the businessman said he and his supporters wanted to donate $100,000.

The matter was then referred to Ross, who he said was an expert at dealing with party and candidate donations.

“I’ve listened to the tape and it doesn’t in any way, shape or form back his lies to you over the past 24 hours or so,” Bridges said about the rogue MP.

Bridges also accused Ross of secretly taping him “for many, many months”, and said carrying out the leak investigation, which led to this week’s bizarre political meltdown, was the right thing to do.

Every member of the National caucus was happy to see Ross go, he said.

Ross released the recording earlier today, saying it substantiated his claims of a cover-up over the donation. 

The tape also includes candid comments from Bridges about the value of different ethnicities as party candidates, and a dismissal of one of his MPs as “fucking useless”.

Former National MP Ross has alleged Bridges was complicit in accepting a $100,000 donation from Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun without properly declaring the donation as required by law.

After laying a formal complaint with Wellington police and speaking to media, he released a recording of a phone call with Bridges in which the donation was discussed.

Ross is heard telling Bridges the money would need to be filed as a party donation to fall under the thresholds for public disclosure, but suggested to him the way in which it had been processed was fine.

“The way they’ve done it, it meets the disclosure requirements — sorry it meets the requirements where it is under the particular disclosure level because it’s a big association and there’s lots of people and multiple people make donations — so that’s all fine,” Ross said.

If the donation was less than $15,000 for a contribution to the party, or $1500 for a candidate, the names of the donor would not have to be disclosed to the Electoral Commission.

Ross said the money was already in a Botany electorate bank account.

Told by Ross that National Party president Peter Goodfellow would need to be kept in the loop, Bridges agreed but said he wanted to “think it through” regarding how the money would be spent - and said he would explain to party general manager Greg Hamilton what he had in mind.

A smoking gun

The conversation does not explicitly provide evidence of wrongdoing, although Bridges is clearly aware of the unorthodox way the the donation was received.

Whether or not this is sufficient to prove Ross’ claim that he was directed to receive the donation in smaller lots will be clear in the course of time.

However, other comments in the tape will embarrass Bridges.

While Ross said there was “no catch” to the donation, he said the issue of party candidacy had been raised at the dinner with Zhang.

“Two, two MPs,” Bridges said, going on to discuss the merits of bringing different ethnicities into the party.

“Like all these things it’s hard, it depends where we’re polling...two Chinese would be nice would it be one Chinese and one Filipino,” he said.

“Two Chinese would be more valuable than two Indians,” Ross replied.

The two then discussed a cull of current MPs to make space for new people, with Bridges mentioning Chris Finlayson and David Carter and describing MP Maureen Pugh as “fucking useless” - comments he has now apologised for on Twitter.

National MP Maureen Pugh. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Earlier, Ross addressed media after spending two hours at the Wellington police station discussing his complaint with three detective senior sergeants.

Ross said he did not split the donation up himself, but he provided the account the donation went into. The donation went into the account as separate donations. Those names were recorded under separate identities.

Ross could not confirm whether they were the identities of real people, or whether they were fake names used solely for getting around electoral law.

Police confirm complaint

In a statement, police confirmed they had received a complaint “regarding the disclosure of political donations under the Electoral Act”.

“The information supplied will be assessed by a Detective Senior Sergeant at Police National Headquarters to determine what further steps may be required from a police perspective.”

While they would not put a timeframe on how long it would take, it would be progressed “as quickly as the information presented to us allows”.

The statement said police took any complaint regarding alleged Electoral Act offences seriously, with decisions regarding the outcome of investigations made based on the facts and evidence, and in accordance with the Solicitor General’s prosecution guidelines.

However, they would not provide any further comment as was standard for any complaints received.

Turbulent days for the National party 

In a bizarre series of events over the past couple of days, Ross has been labelled by National as the leaker of leader Simon Bridges' travel expenses in August, accused Bridges of being corrupt and breaking electoral law, resigned from the National Party and as a member of Parliament, and simultaneously been expelled from the party.

During an almost-hour-long press conference on Tuesday, Ross accused Bridges of breaking electoral law, saying Bridges had accepted a $100,000 donation from Yikun, following a dinner at Zhang's house and a subsequent fundraiser in May.

The allegations are further muddied by concerns about Zhang's ties to China and the Chinese Communist Party's United Front work programme, which helped with the country's soft power push and political influence, through donations. Zhang is a prolific member of the Chinese community, and has engaged with a series of high-profile politicians at events and conferences.

Ross alleges Bridges asked him to pick up the donation in May, and then split it into smaller amounts, so the donation came in under the $15,000 threshold, allowing Bridges to keep Zhang anonymous.

Bridges denies having ever broken electoral law, and on Tuesday said he welcomed a police investigation, in which he would be vindicated.

It is unclear whether the donation was made. Bridges refused to answer this question on Tuesday, and on Wednesday morning deputy leader Paula Bennett told RNZ Bridges spoke to Zhang, and she thought Zhang had made comments about wanting to support National.

Zhang is currently in China and cannot be contacted.

A political career in crisis

Ross has said he will stand as an independent candidate in the Botany by-election, but he is unlikely to win, with National and Labour both standing candidates.

Ross entered politics at just 18, as a Manukau City councillor. He came into Parliament as MP for Botany following a by-election 2011.

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