Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges. Photo: Facebook

What we don’t know about the Serious Fraud Office probe of National donations

The Police have referred their investigation into $100,000 in donations to the National Party to the SFO. It’s plainly a very bad look but can we deduce much else, asks Andrew Geddis

On its face, news that the Police have referred Jami-Lee Ross’ now-five-month old allegations about Simon Bridges, the National Party and $100,000 in donations to the Serious Fraud Office looks like a very big deal. After all, it’s extremely rare for this elite law enforcement agency to be asked to look at an electoral law matter, let alone one allegedly involving the leader of the opposition having some role in illegally funnelling six figures worth of cash to his party.

And it may well turn out that this is a very big deal, in fact. But, as I’m by nature a cautious and careful character (references available on request), let’s just put a few caveats in place before we get too excited.

First of all, we don’t really know why the Police have taken this step, because their statement on the issue doesn’t say anything more than that “[the SFO] hold the appropriate mandate to look further into matters raised by the investigation to date”. This might mean that the Police started investigating, realised any criminal offences they might uncover look like ones the SFO can deal with, and so have sought to hive the whole politically-charged problem off onto someone else’s plate.

Alternatively, it may mean that the Police investigation into the matter has caused them to believe there is evidence of potential offending which the SFO is better placed to investigate, and so are giving them the opportunity to use their expertise (and extensive legislative powers to require cooperation) to take the matter further.

I don’t know which is the case; indeed, no-one outside the investigation ought to know this. All I will say is that I hope the Police haven’t taken five months to decide that they don’t want their fingerprints on this particular trainwreck and so simply are trying to make it someone else’s problem.

That then leads to a second caveat. Some reporting has stated that the SFO is now “investigating” the issue. That isn’t necessarily the case.

The SFO is an independent agency – it isn’t a part of the Police. So, just because the Police refer a matter to it does not mean that it has to take it on and investigate it. That decision is one that the SFO’s director must take independently, after considering if the case meets the organisation’s purposes and if there is sufficient evidence to warrant its attention. All the SFO has said so far is that having “received a referral” from the Police, no further comment on what happens next will be forthcoming.

It may be that in time the SFO politely say “thanks for thinking of us, NZ Police, but we don’t really see anything here that need involve us”.

Which raises the third caveat. Let’s remember what Jami-Lee Ross alleged took place. He told the Police that Simon Bridges was complicit in a $100,000 donation to National being broken down into smaller amounts under $15,000 in order to avoid disclosing the true donor’s identity as required by the Electoral Act 1993. If true, then that’s a quite serious offence.

But as I wrote at the time of Ross’ original accusations, the evidence produced to date does not conclusively prove that any such offending took place. Indeed, that evidence actually appeared to show the National Party’s officials trying to ensure the law was complied with by verifying the identity of the various donors concerned.

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Furthermore, if National’s officials didn’t manage to connect each donation to a real, flesh-and-blood donor, then they would have been required to treat it as coming from an “anonymous” source. In that case, they can only retain $1500 of the donation and are required to pass over the rest to the Electoral Commission.

But when a party does that, it must say it has done so in its annual financial return.  Meaning that when National’s annual return for 2018 is released in May this year, we’ll be able to see whether or not they regarded these donations as being “anonymous” (from a source they could not identify as being a real flesh-and-blood person).  Although, of course, if they did not regard them as being “anonymous”, we won’t see who they came from, as they fall under the $15,000 disclosure threshold – as apparently was intended.

Ultimately, of course, questions about the true source of the donation(s) in question can only be resolved by tracing back to where that money originated. As doing so may involve tracking funds through a complex set of accounts, the SFO’s expertise may have been thought more suitable to deal with the matter. If, that is, they take the matter on.

So, until we hear what the SFO finds (if anything), we’re really no nearer to settling what went on than we were back in October of last year. Which doesn’t help Simon Bridges or his National Party any, given that now they face headlines involving the words “donation” “Serious Fraud” and “investigation” for the foreseeable. Which is, as any political commentator worth their salt will tell you, not a good look. At all.


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