Revealed: How Peter Thiel got New Zealand citizenship

By Matt Nippert, Francis Cook

Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel was backed in his application for citizenship by New Zealand rich-listers, and his business partners, Sam Morgan and Rod Drury.

The pair wrote letters of reference for Thiel, praising his backing for the New Zealand technology sector.

Morgan described Thiel as "a wealthy and well-connected technology entrepreneur and investor."

"San Francisco and Silicon Valley are the epicentre of innovation and wealth creation in technology ventures and are the best place for New Zealand technology ventures to start when expanding into the lucrative US market," Morgan said in the letter.

"I believe Peter is committed to New Zealand and that he can make a tremendous contribution to the technology industry to New Zealand's success," he said.

Icehouse chief executive Andrew Hamilton, who organised a conference hosting Thiel cited in the file, told the Herald this evening he had made a significant investment in New Zealand.

"Around 2011, he was in New Zealand regularly and really got behind Xero and Pacific Fibre," Hamilton said. "He gave us the gift of networks, and really opened doors for us in the valley."

"Although he's been less active lately, Thiel has a real affinity to New Zealand and showed a lot of support to our companies."

Thiel argued if he were granted citizenship he would better be able to represent New Zealand on the world stage.

"He states that being a New Zealand citizen would enable him to represent the country on the international stage and give him greater confidence in mobilising New Zealand's talented entrepreneurs," Internal Affairs officials summarised of his application.

"It would give him great pride to let it be known that he is a New Zealand citizen."

While his application was granted in June 2011, it was only last week the world learned of his status as a kiwi.

His lawyer argued in his application that citizenship "is the public recognition of a hallowed bond. For that reason and others he is prepared to make this solemn allegiance and to thereby embrace and contribute to the life, history and culture of New Zealand."

The Department of Internal Affairs has this evening released documents it says supports its decision to grant citizenship to high profile venture capitalist billionaire Thiel.

He was made a Kiwi citizen in a private ceremony in Santa Monica in August 2011, despite officials conceding he did not live in New Zealand and did not express any intention to move here.

"Mr Thiel has never lived in New Zealand," a report to the Minister of Internal Affairs Nathan Guy said.

Peter Thiel on stage during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016. Photo / AP
Peter Thiel on stage during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016. Photo / AP

"Mr Thiel lives in the US. He has stated that, if granted citizenship, he would continue to reside there to manage his American companies."

Despite this, officials recommended Guy approve the application, off the back of his investments in New Zealand business.

"Given the investment Mr Thiel has made in New Zealand companies and the support and contacts he is able to provide, the Department is of the view that granting Mr Thiel's citizenship would be in the public interest due to his exceptional circumstances," the report concluded.

Xero founder Rod Drury confirmed this afternoon he had provided a formal reference for Thiel's application for citizenship: "We were very happy to support him. It was nice to see the support he gave back to us too," he said.

Thiel, worth $3.7 billion according to Forbes, has been an investor in Xero since 2010 and still holds a stake worth around $150m in the cloud accounting software company.

Drury told the Herald he had last met Thiel around six months ago, before the United States election had elevated the profile of the Trump-backing Paypal co-founder.

"It was before all this political stuff came out. He was very helpful to our business - and it really stretched us having that contrarian view," he said.

The documents from Thiel's application file, several dozen pages in total, were made public late this afternoon and are being analysed by Herald reporters with updates to be filed throughout the afternoon.

Thiel's citizenship was approved on June 30, 2011, under an "exceptional circumstances" clause of the Citizenships Act, by then-Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy.

His sole statement on the issue to date said: "I don't recall this specific application".

"As minister I tended to follow the advice of DIA officials on these issues; I'm advised officials recommended granting citizenship in this particular case," he said.

Peter Thiel. Photo / AP
Peter Thiel. Photo / AP

Thiel's diplomatic status, not publicly known until broken by the Herald last week, means the German-born, naturalised American is likely New Zealand's third-richest man, according to National Business Review rich list rankings.

Current Minister of Internal Affairs Peter Dunne claimed the first he'd heard of Thiel was following the Herald's reporting late Tuesday of his citizenship.

Prime Minister Bill English yesterday defended the decision: "New Zealand is a better place with Mr Thiel as a citizen," he said.

The revelation has drawn international attention due to the prominence of Thiel in United States business and political circles. While he has not commented on his Kiwi citizenship, over the weekend Thiel defended President Donald Trump's harsh new immigration crackdown and denied it targeted Muslims.

The New York Times contrasted Thiel's foreign citizenship with his support for the nationalist presidential campaign of Trump, writing:

"The news that one of the richest citizens of New Zealand is a naturalised American who was born in Germany set off an immediate furore in the island nation, with questions being raised about whether being a billionaire gets you special treatment."

Beyond confirming late Tuesday that Thiel was approved for citizenship on June 30, 2011, the Department of Internal Affairs has declined to answer any further questions about the decision.

A planned release of the documents on Friday was abruptly cancelled with a spokesman saying "we have been unable to make contact with all of the relevant parties".

The documents were then informally scheduled for release on Monday, then Tuesday, before being finally released today at 5:10pm. Earlier this afternoon Prime Minister Bill English held a press conference to announce the date of this years' general election.

The limited explanation about exactly how and why Thiel was granted citizenship has failed to satisfy opposition MPs.

The section of the Citizenship Act used in the Thiel case said ministers must determine that it is in the public interest to waive the usual prerequisties for citizenship - such as living in New Zealand for most of the past five years, or being born to native parents.

Labour immigration Iain Lees-Galloway has called on the government to explain itself:

"Why did the minister believe that granting New Zealand citizenship to Mr Thiel was be in the public interest because of exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian or other nature?" he said.

"New Zealanders deserve answers."

- NZ Herald

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