Week in Review

How Whale Oil rivals found themselves on the same team

The strange story of how two men on opposite sides of the Whale Oil saga bizarrely (and briefly) ended up on the same team defending a wily property developer and landlord.

Last week wasn’t a great one for Auckland-based Li Zhu, owner of construction company Imperial Homes. 

The problems started on Monday when Auckland Council announced that Zhu, three of his property companies and two of his colleagues were facing 42 charges relating to an affordable housing development at Hobsonville, northwest of Auckland.

The case involves Imperial Homes selling homes to young families for $636,000 (the maximum under the council scheme) but then charging up to $48,000 more for so-called extras like a driveway or fencing. See previous Newsroom story here.

Imperial Homes asked buyers to pay up to $48,000 for their driveway, fence and landscaping. Photo: Supplied.

Then on Thursday, Zhu, under another name, Andy Lin, was up before the Manukau District Court’s tenancy tribunal on a totally different matter. This time he was accused of illegal practices relating to properties he manages in Flat Bush. 

Former tenants in one of his houses claim he never registered their bond (itself an offence), and that he illegally divided the house into two and rented the two parts separately, despite the property being registered as a single dwelling. 

The couple taking the action, who have three young children, say they were forced to share electricity, gas and even internet accounts with the granny flat below. And if their neighbour didn’t pay their bills, they ended up forking out. They are asking for $21,800 in compensation.

They say other properties Lin manages have similar arrangements.

Zhu argued in a statement submitted at the tribunal that the whole property was let to the main tenants, who sublet the small flat and took the rent.

Which is where, almost unbelievably, Cameron Slater’s infamous Whale Oil blog enters this otherwise unrelated case.

Part one: Whale Oil victim

Neither Li Zhu/Andy Lin nor his China-based relative Zhongai Lin, who owns the house, came to the tenancy tribunal hearing. Instead, Zhu employed Matthew Blomfield to put the case on his behalf. 

Matt Blomfield. Photo: Supplied

Blomfield is a former businessman who found himself the subject of a string of vitriolic Whale Oil posts. He fought back over seven years, and in March the Human Rights Review Tribunal ordered Slater to pay him $70,000 for severe humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.

In an ironic twist, Blomfield bought the Whale Oil blog from the Official Assignee in early August, after Slater suffered multiple strokes and declared himself bankrupt. Shortly afterwards, The Daily Blog’s Martyn Bradbury nominated Blomfield for New Zealander of the Year for standing up to “the most venomous cyberbully troll New Zealand has ever known” - and winning.

Now a litigation support consultant, Blomfield appeared for Zhu (or Lin) at the tenancy tribunal hearing last Thursday. He argued that far from agreeing to pay the tenants compensation and damages, Zhu was seeking $16,000 in unpaid rent.

Tribunal adjudicator Mike Edison adjourned the case, saying Lin must attend the next hearing. 

“I have directed that a witness summons be served on Mr Lin,” he said, telling the tenants that if he didn’t appear he could be up for contempt of court.

Part two: Whale Oil co-accused

But Blomfield isn’t the only person with dealings with Whale Oil that Zhu took on to help him last week. He also appointed public relations consultant Carrick Graham to speak to media about the Imperial Homes court case. Graham, a tobacco and grocery industry lobbyist and the son of former National minister Sir Douglas Graham, has been heavily involved alongside Cameron Slater with Whale Oil

Carrick Graham in 2014. Photo: Chris Skelton/Stuff

In fact, Graham and Slater are being sued for defamation by three health researchers. The academics allege Graham wrote critical blog posts about them and their work, posts he allegedly paid Slater to run on Whale Oil.

So, within a few days Li Zhu/Andy Lin had appointed people on opposite sides of a very public controversy to represent him on two albeit separate property court actions. 

It wasn’t likely to end well, which is possibly why Zhu didn’t tell either man about the other’s appointment - or mention that there were two cases against him.

For example, it was Newsroom that told Blomfield about Graham’s appointment and about the Auckland Council court action. Blomfield wasn’t impressed.

“Carrick Graham is on my top 10 list of people I would never do business with,” he says. “I talked to Andy and asked him if he was involved and Andy said he wasn’t helping.”  

Which could be news to Graham, who confirmed he is working for Zhu on the Imperial Homes court action, but didn’t know anything about the tenancy tribunal hearing until approached by Newsroom. 

“I had a very brief chat with Andy and he said it was an unrelated matter to the Auckland Council issue, and involved the eviction of a tenant due to damage at a property. That is all I know,” Graham said this Monday.

By the afternoon, Blomfield had had enough and told Newsroom he wanted out.

“I have major concerns with what’s going on. This does not appear to be what I was first told, so for moral reasons I’m no longer going to be working on this file.”

A few minutes later he sent Zhu and the Manukau District Court a letter saying he would no longer be representing Zhongai Lin.

“At the time of our engagement, I had no knowledge of the RMA charges, I had not received a copy of the application from the Tenancy Tribunal and my understanding was that this was a simple case of a tenant not paying their rent,” he told Zhu. “As a show of good faith, I have credited any monies owing and will not be requiring any payment for the work I have done.”

The first hearing of the Auckland Council case against Imperial Homes, Zhu, his wife and a sales consultant for the company, will take place on October 8. The next tenancy tribunal case against Andy Lin will be on November 15. 

It’s going to be a busy few weeks.

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