Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Bush lawyer brings Banks to book

The pensioner, the internet tycoon, the QC, the watchdog and the MP. Phil Taylor reports on The Banks Show

Graham McCready has already won a private prosecution against MP Trevor Mallard. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Graham McCready has already won a private prosecution against MP Trevor Mallard. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Dismiss Graham McCready as an old fool at your peril. The pensioner, jobbing accountant, bush lawyer, angina sufferer and convicted blackmailer may look slightly dishevelled and fumble the odd detail in court but he has fired a harpoon into the side of one of the most colourful, controversial and enduring politicians.

John Banks, a past Police Minister, faces a charge that carries a potential jail sentence of up to two years - and with it a possible fullstop to his career as a conviction would mean automatic ejection from Parliament.

Banks' committal for trial sees a longrunning sideshow move centre-stage, with the Solicitor-General considering whether to take over the prosecution from the pensioner.

McCready, who cycled to Wellington airport to catch his flight to Auckland where he won against one of the country's most eminent silks, declared himself "amazed". The QC had bamboozled him, he said, "with 80 pages of legal poop" on the question of "knowledge".

On Wednesday, after a day-long hearing of oral evidence, Judge Phil Gittos ruled there was sufficient evidence to meet the test "that a reasonable tribunal could convict the defendant" of knowingly filing a false electoral return. The evidence was the same the police judged insufficient to be tested by a court.

McCready, 69, wasn't present to hear the decision. He had lost the exchange with David Jones, QC, at the close of proceedings about what the charge hung on. McCready had cited precedents about the obligation of those signing legal documents to ensure they were correct, but Jones pointed out the precedents related to finance law and were irrelevant to the present case. Actual knowledge of falsity was the critical question, in other words, what was in Banks' mind when he signed an incorrect declaration of donations.

In those circumstances, another $110 spent on a Jetstar ticket seemed less appealing than the afternoon nap that has become routine since a recent bout of angina landed McCready in hospital. It had been a busy time. McCready, running on a platform of lifting the afternoon curfew on Super Gold cards on buses, came ninth of the 10 candidates standing in Wellington City Council's eastern ward.

So when the judge gave his ruling, he was snoozing in his $129-a-week Miramar bedsit from where he compiled his case on an $80 computer.

The false return relates to the 2010 Auckland mayoral campaign in which Banks, the sitting mayor, lost the race to become the first mayor of the Super City to Len Brown, who is now embroiled in his own morality tale.

The scandal became public in April 2012 when Kim Dotcom spilled the beans about a $50,000 donation he said Banks requested be split into two anonymous cheques. The internet entrepreneur reckoned the politician had said it was best the donations be secret if he was to "help" Dotcom in the future. That Banks did not help Dotcom in his hour of need may be the catalyst that saw everyone in court this week.

If there is a single fateful moment, it is Dotcom's call from a remand cell in Mt Eden Prison 18 months ago after he had been arrested in response to US criminal copyright charges regarding his Megaupload website.

"I was in jail with two slipped discs and severe back pain and nobody did anything," he said last year. "I think what triggered me coming out was that he [Banks] declined to know me and that he said that I hardly had any contact with the guy, but there he was at my birthday party making a toast to me and there he was at the fireworks and everywhere."

If the depositions hearing this week was pantomime, everybody came in costume.

Tuesday morning: The large figure of Dotcom sits in the corner of the level-two foyer during a break in his testimony, saying nothing, seeing all through blue-tinted glasses.

On the wall a few metres away a name leaps out from the court list: "John Archibald Banks, Court 7". The show was named for him but Banks opted for a non-speaking role, choosing not to give evidence though only he has direct evidence about his state of mind when he signed. Instead his defence relied on its one star witness, the financial manager of his campaign, a businessman for whom name suppression lapses on Monday (unless he appeals). His evidence: Banks did not look at the list of donors so could not have known it was wrong.

Banks, wearing a sober suit with a subtle stripe and his distinctive Magoo glasses, sat in the gallery's front row with his support crew of two men, one woman, each in suits, seated beside and behind. An old colleague, former National Party president John Slater, was there too.

Dotcom, dressed as usual in black from his sneakers to his long scarf, filled the witness box as he told how he was initially offended that Banks wanted to keep the donation secret. "I had no problem with anyone knowing." His evidence over, the judge told him he could go or stay. Dotcom took a seat in the gallery across the aisle from Banks, neither acknowledging the other.

Penny Bright, self-styled public watchdog, regular election candidate and would-be Banks nemesis, breezed in, tried to catch the eye of friend and foe, settled like a nesting bird into a seat adjacent to her quarry. She wore her ubiquitous black knit beret. It was Bright who served the summonses on the prosecution witnesses, picked McCready up from the airport and supplied him with a couch on which to spend the night.

On the street below, Bright's banner caught the eye of passersby. A series of photos of the MP progressively taking on the features of a rodent accompanied the claim, "John Banks has all the class of a rat with a gold tooth". The Act Party leader noticed too. Tuesday lunchtime he came out of court alone, says Jacquelyne Taylor who was looking after Bright's banner, and walked straight towards her.

"Bush Pig!" he chided in a voice Taylor said was loud enough for only her to hear. The "stroppy, politically savvy woman" is a grandmother, writer, part-time fitness instructor and has recently been made a celebrant. "So, I'm not really bush pig material."

Upstairs, SkyCity casino big boss Nigel Morrison (black power suit with bold white stripe) testified that Banks knew where the donation he gave him came from. He had personally handed Banks a cheque for $15,000, placed inside a SkyCity envelope. The company donated $15,000 to both Banks and Brown for their campaigns and anonymity hadn't crossed his mind, Morrison said.

The legal advocates were chalk and cheese. Jones, the big-ticket troubleshooter, in an immaculately tailored suit; on the bench in front him, McCready wore a rumpled shirt beneath a sleeveless jumper. The case was due to start on Monday but was delayed a day because McCready's morning flight was cancelled owing to bad Wellington weather. A situation Jones described as "hopeless and unacceptable".

McCready has form. He won a private prosecution of Labour's Trevor Mallard over the MP's punch-up with Tau Henare (Mallard, who pleaded guilty to the non-criminal charge of fighting in a public place, noted this week that McCready is an equal-opportunity litigant, pursuing both left and right), and he once sued former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney over a decision to withhold tax refunds.

He has other form: convictions for blackmail and tax fraud, gained, he claims, in pursuit of just causes. He is the son of an alcoholic Irish wharfie, is himself a reformed alcoholic, is from a background steeped in socialist dogma and a family he has described as an Outrageous Fortune family of the 50s.

His activist zeal, he says, is fired by official nonsense, his motivation rooted in any number of stories of unfairness, from being robbed of a high school chemistry prize because the teacher didn't like him, to the families of wharfies being stigmatised by emergency regulations during the 1951 waterfront dispute, to a mate being electrocuted by faulty wiring that McCready had warned his employer about. He learned, he told an interviewer in 2007, that "you have to speak up, you have to keep on about things".

In his ruling, Judge Gittos said it would have required minimal attention for Banks to see whether the SkyCity and Dotcom donations were there and properly recorded. There were five donations of $25,000 on the list, all described as anonymous.

The politician's face flushed red. But the fight is far from over. Teagate, the Hulich finance affair and the Dick Hubbard pamphlet campaign are recent scrapes he's come through. His lawyers will consider challenging the decision and he intends to stand for re-election. "Life wasn't meant to be easy," Banks quipped to reporters at Parliament next morning.

- NZ Herald

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