David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Cloud hovers over colourful career

For years John Banks has never been far from the headlines. His role for past seven days has been an unfamiliar one - that of a High Court defendant.

John Banks has denied knowingly receiving campaign donations from Kim Dotcom. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Banks has denied knowingly receiving campaign donations from Kim Dotcom. Photo / Greg Bowker

John Banks wore a face like granite. He showed little emotion during the seven-day trial, with few exceptions.

One came on Monday when TV3 was carpeted by Justice Edwin Wylie. Executives at the channel were summonsed to the High Court at Auckland and asked why Banks had been exposed to "ridicule and derision".

Footage used in a news broadcast showed the veteran politician, facing a charge of filing a false electoral return, put his finger in his ear. He then put the same finger in his mouth. The broadcast was clipped for YouTube where about 28,000 people viewed footage titled "ear wax lunch munch".

It was a humiliation.

TV3 apologised to the judge and Banks leaned forward, face reddening. "And me ... and me," he hissed at TV3's lawyer Claire Bradley.

She turned towards him and apologised.

No, Banks hissed again. Low and insistent, he said it was to be "on the news tonight".

They had called the trial a circus. Then there was a bucket of mud hurled at Banks, then the "ear wax lunch munch" video.

Media packed the jury box - the final day saw 12 journalists peering down at Banks as if they sat in judgment.

By the summing up on Thursday, admirers and friends of Banks were calling it a "travesty".

When they did, they mentioned Banks' father, Archie. Years earlier, aged 17, Banks had watched his father sent to prison in this same court house.

That day he stood outside the court and pledged to do good.

The sins of Archie Banks loomed large over his son's life, driving him on through decades of business, public office and service to the community.

In the twilight of his career, he was back and this time he was facing a criminal charge.

"Not guilty," he said.

And a mask of stone fell across his features.

John Banks couldn't stay away from public office. As Mayor of Auckland, he began to organise the campaign for the mayoralty of the new Super City a year out from the 2010 election.

Campaign planning records obtained by the Herald show how important money was.

A meeting of Banks' closest advisers, the Mentors Group, in December 2009 saw jobs assigned and four of the 10 positions dedicated to fundraising.

One other, treasurer Lance Hutchison, was given the task of counting it. The second order of business was "progress with fundraising".

Those involved in the campaign talk of the long haul to election day as climbing a mountain without knowing how high it was.

Almost one million people would vote in the newest, biggest electoral area in the country. A member of the team recalled how "everyone was trying to come to terms with the Super City".

Without a benchmark, all they knew was they needed all the money they could raise, attend every meeting they could.

"The campaign started very early," says Aaron Bhatnagar, Mentor Group member.

"There was a punishing ... gruelling timetable of meetings all around the region. It really was enormously tiring."

The fundraisers were led by the political right's rainmaker supreme, former National Party president Michelle Boag.

Other designated fundraisers were listed as Auckland councillor Cameron Brewer (briefly), National MP Scott Simpson (a limited role, he says) and real estate agent Graham Wall.

And it was Mr Wall who connected Banks with Kim Dotcom. The tycoon told security chief Wayne Tempero he'd like to meet the Auckland mayor.

Mr Tempero knew Mr Wall and the meeting went ahead. Two months later $50,000 was donated to Banks' mayoral campaign, although it would be almost two years before it emerged.

Like the SkyCity donation, it sat anonymously in the accounts - a time bomb waiting to go off.

Auckland's verdict on Banks in 2010 was harsh. He lost, comprehensively.

Ms Boag said in court: "We raised nearly a million dollars. What a waste of money."

So why not stop there?

Aged 64, Banks had built businesses, been Auckland's mayor twice and a National Party MP for 18 years. Of those, he had been a minister for six years.

But it wasn't enough. Not long after the 2010 election defeat, Banks was again questing for another way to serve the public.

"He believes everybody should serve to their capacity," says former parliamentary opponent Richard Prebble, the Labour minister turned Act Party leader.

"I think he believes very strongly all citizens had a duty to public service."

Former National Party leader Don Brash and Banks - who had been in business together - were sounded out together. Dr Brash said the men "were both of the view that the Government could do somewhat better in many respects".

"John and I were approached at one point by a new political party," he said.

The Herald understands it was Colin Craig's Conservative Party. They considered standing, decided not to, and Dr Brash turned his attention to Act. "I decided Act was going to disappear if [Rodney Hide] stood for Epsom". Dr Brash said he had seen a poll (believed to have been done for Mr Craig) asking Epsom voters to rank candidates. Banks led the poll, followed by Mr Craig and then Dr Brash. Winston Peters and Rodney Hide languished at the bottom.

"At that point I felt if I challenged Rodney Hide, then John Banks would be the candidate for Epsom."

So Dr Brash toppled Mr Hide, Banks went into Epsom, and after the Tea Tapes debacle, and Act barely survived with a lone MP in Parliament. On his return to Parliament, he was a different man.

Somewhere between the accusations first arising in April 2012 and a year later when the private prosecution really found traction, Banks did what he came to Parliament to do.

Mr Prebble, who isn't actively involved in Act, says he has been "very impressed" by Banks.

He points to the charter schools work. "John Banks has achieved more in Act policy in three years then both Rodney [Hide] and I in our while careers."

It is commonly held that Banks is not a standard Act politician.

"He's not a liberal in the sense I'm a liberal on drug policy," said Dr Brash.

Recalling Banks support of the gay marriage bill, Dr Brash said: "It isn't where his natural instinct would have been."

Former Act president Chris Simmons, on Banks' role with the party, said: "I never really truly understood why that happened. It was one of those curve balls that was thrown at the party at the time."

It all went wrong five months after the election.

The Labour Party's Trevor Mallard spotted a $15,000 donation from SkyCity to Auckland mayor Len Brown. The casino is an even-handed contributor, so Mr Mallard asked questions then complained to police. Dotcom's claims followed and it was Banks' response which filled media coverage and drove coverage.

When TV3's John Campbell first interviewed Banks over his contact with Mr Dotcom, he asked: "Did you helicopter out there?"

Banks replied: "I don't remember that."

Campbell: "You'd remember that surely, if you helicoptered into the Coatesville mansion?"

Banks: "I can't recall whether I did or not."

Talkback filled with people wondered how anyone could forget flying into one of the country's most palatial homes in a helicopter to meet a two-metre tall 165kg German.

It became a debacle which placed pressure on the Government. As details emerged of Banks' contact with Mr Dotcom, it contrasted with his early claim he had spoken with the tycoon for just 20 minutes.

There was his presence at the fireworks display, the birthday party where he offered a toast, his intercession with friend and Lands Minister Maurice Williamson over Mr Dotcom's attempt to buy the Coatesville mansion.

A police investigation into the donations was picked up by bankrupt alcoholic accountant Graham McCready, who found traction through the courts. In October 2013, Banks resigned his ministerial posts. Act later announced "after 36 years of public service, that it is time for him to spend more time on his family and his private business interests".

While Banks was at the High Court, his original prosecutor Graham McCready was in hospital. On Monday, he had the sixth of a series of mini-strokes he attributes to the case.

"I was at a great risk of karking it. I was very close to not being here today."

If he hadn't passed the case to the Solicitor General to prosecute, he thinks it would have killed him. "I do now have a serious [health] issue to deal with.

"But I wouldn't have it any other way. If you're not prepared to go to the wall, then go fishing."

In court, a slew of character witnesses testify to Banks' character.

Councillors Cameron Brewer and Dick Quax came to watch proceedings, along with other worthies. Ms Boag, who testified early, is back to watch.

Banks' wife Amanda, who now lives apart from her husband in the South Island, was also there in support.

Their presence appears to buoy Banks. Mr Brewer: "He's getting great support from a lot of people and he'll continue to make a positive contribution in our community for many more years."

By Thursday, when the case closed, Banks appeared to relax. He went forward to shake the hand of the prosecutor, Paul Dacre, and his own lawyer David Jones QC. He was smiling as he left court.

It's simply not right, says Dr Brash. The mud being hurled, being "pilloried" by TV3, the accusations.

"I'm deeply saddened about the present situation. To have his political career effectively ended in that kind of way is enormously sad. It is an awful situation."

In Epsom, Banks' would-be successor is campaigning. David Seymour, 30, is here to take over. He's doorknocking every house in the electorate.

He supported Banks here in the 2011 campaign then worked in Wellington during 2012 but hasn't seen much of him this year.

"People will look at a guy who, love him or hate him, has given 40 years to serving public office.

"No one would have paid a higher price for having kept the centre right in power than the ordeal John Banks has had to go through these two years.

"This is a guy whose parents went to jail, who determined to lead a law abiding life very proudly. It's been horrible for him to be accused of breaking the law."

Then he echoes Graham McCready's fervent wish, saying: "I just hope justice prevails."

- NZ Herald

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