Charities connected to Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere are under investigation after financial reports showed nearly $500,000 in charitable funds had been used to bankroll his mayoral and general election campaigns.
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Financial statements filed to the Charities Register for Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust Group showed $385,307 had been advanced in related-party interest-free loans to its chief executive to "pursue the general elections and political aspirations" with the candidacy recorded as being "endorsed". As of June 30, 2021, the filing date for the most-recently published accounts, no repayments had been made.
Accounts for the National Urban Māori Authority (Numa) show $82,695 in "sponsorship payments" were provided to its chief executive to "pursue the 2020 elections and political aspirations for Māori Party" with candidacy again being "endorsed" by the charity's board.
Tamihere is chief executive of both organisations and ran a failed campaign for the Auckland mayoralty in 2019.
He was also a candidate and co-leader of Te Pāti Māori during the 2020 general election and this year he became the party's president. Recent polling suggests the party could hold the balance of power after next year's election.
Charities' involvement in politics is a vexed issue that has in the past prompted high-stakes legal battles. Greenpeace and Family First ended up in the Supreme Court arguing against decisions to strip them of charitable status over their political campaigning, with Greenpeace ultimately successful while Family First was not.
Deregistered charities lose their tax-free status and risk income tax being applied across their net assets. According to the most recent Waipareira accounts, this could expose the organisation to a $16m tax bill.
Neither Greenpeace nor Family First had made donations to political parties, and Natasha Weight, general manager of sector regulator Charities Services said she considered the rules were clear.
"Charities can express support for a particular policy of a political party that is important to their charitable purpose. However, a charity must not support or oppose a political party or candidate. This includes making a donation to a political party or a candidate's election campaign, endorsing a party or candidate, or allowing a party or candidate to use a charity's resources," Weight said.
Weight said the political campaigning and donation payments were being investigated, with her office having opened a file in 2019 when Tamihere disclosed his mayoral campaign received a $100,000 donation from Waipareira.
"As these matters are subject to our regulatory processes, I will not be commenting on our inquiries until they have been completed," she said.
Contacted by the Herald Tamihere declined to answer detailed questions, or whether the related-party loans to him from Waipareira had been repaid.
"There are no binding decisions that have been made by the [Charities Service] as we are still under discussion," he said of the investigation.
"In regard to personal employment arrangements you are aware no comment will be made."
Waipareira chairman Raymond Hall and Numa chairwoman Tureiti Moxon did not respond to questions directed to their offices - they share a phone number - but in 2019 Hall said the trust was proud to have supported Tamihere's bid for the Auckland mayoralty and had never resiled from the right to participate in the democratic process.
Sue Barker, principal of Wellington legal office Sue Barker Charities Law, said restrictions on political activities by charities had created a "chilling effect", but outright donations by charities to political parties and campaigns would be new territory.
"The law is that charities should not be partisan," she said. There are few bright-lines in charities law, but that is one."
Juliet Chevalier-Watts, a senior lecturer in charities law at Waikato University, said regulators needed to investigate the matter. "It would make sense to have a look at these types of activities, certainly, to reassure the public because Charities Service is all about giving the public confidence in the sector."
Political donations have come under sharp scrutiny in recent years, with the Government announcing electoral laws would be reformed and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) prosecuting criminal complaints about donor-disguising by the New Zealand First, Labour and National Parties.
Not-guilty verdicts were handed down in relation to the New Zealand First case, but the Crown has indicated it would appeal. The Labour and National cases are being heard at trial in the High Court at Auckland.
The Māori Party's financial returns from the 2020 election were also the subject of a complaint to police from the Electoral Commission after it failed to promptly declare $320,000 in donations - including $208,000 from Tamihere and Numa.
The matter was then referred to the SFO, which said it was not investigating the case: "The SFO has closed this matter and will not be taking any further steps," a spokeswoman said.
Analysis of donation filings to the Electoral Commission shows Tamihere and the two charities he runs have become significant political donors.
According to donation disclosures filed to the Electoral Commission covering Tamihere's tilt at the Auckland mayoralty in 2019, and the general election the following year where Tamihere was a candidate for the Te Pāti Māori, the trio are recorded as having donated $387,604 towards the two campaigns.
According to donation filings for political parties the largest declared individual political donor since 2019 is billionaire and New Zealand's richest man Graeme Hart, who this year donated a total of $350,000 to the National and Act parties. Recent court hearings have revealed Hart - through a company - had also donated $14,995 to the New Zealand First Foundation.
Since 2019 Robert Smellie, KC, has donated $322,500 to the Labour Party.
Tamihere declined to explain the difference between the sum recorded in accounts as being advanced by the charities for his political campaigns ($468,002), and the figure recorded as donations from them and him for the mayoral and general elections ($387,604).
Timothy Kuhner, an associate professor of law at Auckland University said restrictions on political activity and funding by charities disproportionately affected parties like Te Pāti Māori, which did not have a wealthy supporter or donor base.
Kuhner said the provision of related-party loans to Tamihere by Waipareira exposed what he considered a "hole in the law" as presently loans to candidates were not subject to any disclosure requirements.
"If Tamihere gets his money from loans - especially interest-free ones - and then passes that money along to a party as a political donation, I would argue that he's circumventing the requirement that political parties disclose the loans that they receive," he said.