SFO to investigate National donation allegations

The Serious Fraud Office will investigate allegations of electoral donation fraud levelled against the National Party and its leader Simon Bridges by rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross.

Ross has claimed vindication over the news, but Bridges has expressed confidence his own hands are clean and called on party officials to fully cooperate with the SFO inquiry.

On the cusp of being named as the National Party leaker who had released Bridges’ expenses to the media, Ross accused his leader last October of “unlawful activity” regarding election donations.

Ross later said that a $100,000 donation from Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun had been artificially divided at Bridges’ request to avoid disclosure requirements - a claim denied by both Bridges and party officials.

Police started looking into the allegations after Ross spoke to them last year, but now appear to have elevated the issue into specialist hands.

In a statement released on Tuesday morning, police said they had referred a complaint they received last October to the SFO, “in relation to the disclosure of political donations under the Electoral Act”.

“The complaint has been referred to the SFO as they hold the appropriate mandate to look further into matters raised by the investigation to date.”

Police said they could not comment on their own investigation while the SFO was looking into the allegations.

The timing of the police press release, shortly before the National Party’s weekly caucus meeting, appeared to catch Bridges and his team on the hop.

“This is clearly a matter for the National Party, I expect them to cooperate with the SFO - that’s what they’ll be doing.”

The National leader said he only became aware of the SFO referral when the media release came out, but suggested it was an issue for party officials to deal with, rather than himself.

“This is clearly a matter for the National Party, I expect them to cooperate with the SFO - that’s what they’ll be doing.”

Bridges again said he had not asked Ross to break up Zhang’s donation, or said anything that could be misconstrued that way by his MP.

He had not spoken with police but did provide them with a statement, and believed that National officials had cooperated fully with the police investigation.

Bridges said his chief of staff had done the bulk of the work in talking to party officials about the donation issue, but he was confident they had complied with the law.

“I’ve sought assurances, and they’re very clear that we have good processes and we’ve done nothing wrong.”

However, given the SFO referral he said “the right thing is for the National Party to answer questions and for them to cooperate fully with the SFO without me, as I say, trying to put a bunch of value judgements on top of it”.

Bridges denied he was attempting to scapegoat party officials, saying: “No, not at all - there is a dividing line and I think that’s pretty clear.”

"Every time I've been told that I was wrong and baseless, I've been able to come up with some evidence and some information."

Speaking to media after Bridges, Ross said he was happy to cooperate with the SFO investigation and believed the referral from the police validated his concerns.

"Every time I've been told that I was wrong and baseless, I've been able to come up with some evidence and some information...things don't get referred to the Serious Fraud Office unless there's good reason to."

Ross claimed Bridges had been "at pains" to point out the donation should not be disclosed in the normal fashion, while the $100,000 was allegedly offered directly to the leader.

However, he did not believe anybody had directly told Zhang that the donation should be split up, but said the donor was "sufficiently aware of the rules in regards to disclosure" from previous experience.

Electoral law held the political party, rather than the donor, responsible for disclosure, Ross said.

A National Party spokesman said the party stood by its previous statements on the donations issue, and had nothing further to add.

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