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Auckland High Court (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

PoliticsAugust 24, 2022

Deleted obscenities, Zoom shots and kids’ laptops examined in donations case 

an old brick building on a sunny day
Auckland High Court (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The lawyer for a man facing criminal charges in relation to Labour Party donations has challenged the Serious Fraud Office investigator on the ‘care and candour’ of the affidavit sworn in seeking a search warrant.  

The basis for a search warrant that led to an early-morning raid on the home of a man accused of involvement in political donations fraud, which saw the seizure of a laptop used by one of his children, has come under scrutiny at the High Court in Auckland. 

Representing a man who faces criminal charges in relation to donations to the Labour Party, Marc Corlett QC questioned Lee Taylor, lead investigator for the Serious Fraud Office. 

The defendant, who cannot be named owing to a suppression order, had previously been served with a section-9 notice, which required him to hand over any storage device that held evidence relevant to the Labour donations investigation. In a sworn affidavit submitted to a judge as part of an application for a search warrant in October 2020, Taylor said there was reason to believe three devices had been withheld. He had also pointed to the deletion of files on the defendant’s phone.

Under cross-examination by Corlett, Taylor – who is the final witness to be called by prosecutors – agreed that the allegation of a failure to comply with a section-9 notice amounted to an “allegation of serious criminal offending”. 

Affidavits from Taylor and his SFO colleague, principal electronic forensic investigator Jung Son, identified a MacBook Pro as a device that they believed should have been surrendered under the section-9 notice, based on data from the defendant’s phone that showed it to have been backed up on such a computer.  

Under questioning today, Taylor said he did not know if the office that provides IT support to employees had been asked whether they used MacBook Pros or had backed up the man’s devices on a MacBook Pro. He separately accepted he had not asked the defendant in an interview whether he had backed up his device to a MacBook Pro. 

Under cross-examination by Corlett last week, Jung Son initially said that the MacBook Pro was listed as a device believed to have been withheld not just because of evidence showing the phone had been backed up to such a computer, but because “we have identified another photograph to indicate [he] was using a MacBook Pro as well”. Jung Son subsequently accepted, however, that the photo showed a MacBook Air, and that the photo did not imply it was the defendant’s MacBook Air. 

The provenance of that MacBook Air – the photograph of it, and the images on the laptop’s screen – was also covered with Taylor. Did that Zoom frame, which showed the defendant in the larger window, as the person speaking at that moment in time, mean the laptop was his? Taylor said it did not. Did Taylor have reason to believe the defendant, with no sign of a phone or camera pointed at the screen, was taking a photo “surreptitiously”? Again, Taylor said no. Did he accept that it was a screenshot that had been shared with the defendant? Taylor said he could not say, and that question would be better directed at Jung Son. 

One MacBook Air, used by a child of the defendant for schoolwork during Covid lockdowns, was seized from the man’s property, but returned later that day. No material relevant to Labour donations was found on the third of the devices. 

On the question of deleted items on his phone, Corlett said the defendant had undertaken deletions in the presence of a previous SFO investigator. Where was this acknowledged in the affidavit? “This part was not included in the search warrant affidavit,” said Taylor. Was it a conscious decision to omit this information? “I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision,” said Taylor. 

The court was shown examples of the sort of content the defendant removed: unsolicited, obscene and abusive messages attacking Jacinda Ardern.

Taylor also accepted that his affidavit erroneously claimed a WeChat between the defendant and two other parties had been deleted. He was also challenged on the decision not to put further questions to the defendant about his device usage and on other matters, despite the invitation from his then lawyer to do so before the search warrant was sought and executed, despite having not been asked about the devices in question during his only interview with the SFO.

Asked whether he considered his actions in submitting the affidavit were consistent with the “care and candour” required, Taylor said that “in totality”, yes, they were, while accepting more care could have been taken with “certain aspects”. He rejected any suggestion he had intentionally misled in seeking the warrant. Asked whether he had pursued the investigation in an “open-minded and scrupulously fair” manner, Taylor said, yes, he had done so. 

The judge-alone trial before Justice Ian Gault, now in its fifth week, concerns donations made to both the National and Labour parties, and follows investigations triggered by Jami-Lee Ross’s explosive claims in 2018. The Crown contends that cash sums were split up in the National example, and that paintings were used as a stratagem in the Labour case. In both, the allegation is that “sham donors” were used to protect the identity of the true donor, China-born businessman Yikun Zhang. Facing charges of deception are Ross, Zhang, twin brothers Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng and three people whose identities cannot be revealed. All deny the charges. 

Despite a range of delays including a positive Covid test for one defendant, witness illness and a power cut that sent the court into darkness, defence lawyers have indicated to the court that they are confident it will wrap within the allocated 10 weeks. 

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