New Zealand lawmaker faces fraud charges over donations
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A New Zealand lawmaker and three political donors face fraud charges over an alleged scheme to hide campaign donations.
Lawmaker Jami-Lee Ross on Wednesday was named along with three other men in the case. If found guilty, Ross faces a maximum penalty of seven years in prison on each of two charges.
The other men face similar charges. All four deny the allegations and say they will fight them in court.
The charges revolve around an alleged scheme to break up large donations into small chunks so the donors wouldn't be publicly identified under electoral rules.
Ross first brought concerns about the donations to police in 2018 during a tumultuous falling out with his party leader Simon Bridges, who Ross accused of orchestrating the alleged scheme. Ross said he's now being made a scapegoat.
“I always wanted to make it very clear that as the whistleblower on this deception, it was outrageous that I was then charged and that others were seeking to implicate me,” Ross said in a statement Wednesday.
Bridges has denied knowing about the alleged scheme and doesn't face any charges.
After he fell out with Bridges, Ross left the conservative National Party and has continued serving in Parliament as an independent lawmaker. He said he suffered a mental breakdown, while others have accused him of harassing female colleagues.
The three donors — Yikun Zhang, Shijia “Colin” Zheng and Hengjia “Joe” Zheng — said in a statement they were proud New Zealanders and philanthropists who had regularly donated to political parties and campaigns. They said they were “casualties of the turmoil created through mudslinging" when Ross and Bridges fell out.
Ross has previously said that Zhang donated 100,000 New Zealand dollars ($64,000) to the National Party. The scheme allegedly involves a second donation of the same size.
The charges came after an investigation by New Zealand's Serious Fraud Office. The office this week announced it is also investigating a foundation that helped fund another political party, the centrist New Zealand First party.
Transparency International named New Zealand and Denmark as the least corrupt countries in the world on its most recent corruption perceptions index.