NZ First Foundation case: Accused pleads not guilty and seeks to postpone suppression argument

One of two people charged by the Serious Fraud Office after an investigation into the NZ First Foundation has pleaded not guilty and argues the media have been set loose on them.

In the North Shore District Court today, one of the accused appeared before Judge Allan Roberts seeking to postpone a scheduled first call of the obtaining by deception charges tomorrow.

Neither of the accused are a minister, sitting MP, candidate in the election or a member of their staff, or a current member of the New Zealand First political party.

Today one of the accused argued they were the “target” of media set loose on them, a victim of leaks to journalists, and have been denied the right to properly prepare for tomorrow’s hearing.

Whether the accused’s interim name suppression – which the media attempted to overturn before the election – was to continue was also due to be argued again tomorrow.

SFO prosecutor John Dixon QC said if the case was adjourned to December 17 – as the accused proposed – then it “really means next year”.

Media lawyer Robert Stewart, who is representing Herald publisher NZME, Stuff, RNZ, TVNZ and MediaWorks, also opposed a postponement of any suppression argument.

Judge Roberts, however, treated today’s hearing as a first call for the accused.

He recorded their not guilty plea and election of trial by jury, but he also adjourned any suppression arguments until November 18.

“The usual process in my court is to ensure fairness,” he said, adding he believed the accused when asked for more preparation time to gather more supporting affidavits.

“I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and deprive him of that opportunity,” Judge Roberts said.

“I’ll give you time but it’s important we maintain momentum.”

Judge Roberts remanded the accused on bail with conditions to reside at a specific address and not contact any of the SFO witnesses.

The second person charged by the SFO is due to appear in court tomorrow morning.

Charging documents allege the pair deposited $746,881 between September 30, 2015 and February 14 this year with “intent to deceive the donors of the monies, the party secretary of the New Zealand First Party and/or the Electoral Commission”.

“The defendants adopted a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem, whereby party donations for the party were paid into the bank accounts of [suppressed] and the New Zealand First Foundation and not notified to the party secretary, or declared by the party secretary to the Electoral Commission,” the papers read.

“Those undeclared funds thereby became available to [suppressed]/New Zealand First Foundation to use as the defendants saw fit, and were used to pay expenses of the party and to develop a fundraising database for the benefit of the party and [suppressed].”

Before the general election the Court of Appeal declined to hear a second appeal from the media companies wishing to name the duo before voters entered the ballot box.

The two accused have not been named after a series of hastily arranged court hearings and interim suppression orders were made after the SFO laid charges on September 23.

The court hearings, which were not listed on court proceeding notices and held in the absence of journalists, included NZ First’s failed attempt to stop the charges becoming public until after a government is formed.

NZ First leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has distanced himself from the foundation – reported to have bankrolled the political party – and has denied any wrongdoing after it first came under scrutiny last November.

After charges were laid, Peters claimed he and the party were “exonerated”.

At a press conference he was also highly critical of the SFO and its decision to lay charges so close to the election, threatening legal action against the prosecution office.

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