If Winston Peters wants to have a spray over the failed NZ First Foundation case — and clearly he does — he should direct his venom at the Serious Fraud Office.
Peters' decision to slag off journalists in a lengthy Twitter feed, over what he says were "spurious allegations" levelled against two men acquitted over alleged donations fraud, is misplaced.
It was the SFO, in the first place, that laid a charge of "obtaining by deception" against the two defendants in the New Zealand First Foundation electoral funding case, for what it alleged was a fraudulent scheme to conceal nearly $750,000 in donations.
It wasn't the journalists.
If, for instance, journalists fail to fully report the SFO's actions against the two major parties — National and Labour — which get underway in the High Court at Auckland on Monday, Peters would be calling out the media for failing to do its job. Rightly so.
So why the histrionics, unless Peters wishes to deflect further reportage on some of the detail revealed in the High Court hearing?
The hearing was useful in disclosing through evidence that the likes of New Zealand's richest man Graeme Hart was prepared to donate to the party — at just under the publicly declarable financial limit of $15,000. This was in 2019 when NZ First was part of a Coalition Government considering a capital gains tax.
A PR person had emailed Hart's son-in-law to say he'd met a then NZ First MP "re CGT" and "overall was a really positive conversation and their thinking is very much aligned".
There were plenty of other useful disclosures of just which businesses were providing funding to NZ First.
Fishing magnate Sir Peter Talley and his firm gave small donations to the foundation at various times.
In evidence read to the court, Sir Peter said: "There was no way would we want our names disclosed and splashed all around the newspapers, that we had paid money to a political party.
"People don't like to be associated to NZ First or any other political party. They don't want to do that because once you do in this country, you get crucified." He said New Zealand First always "seemed to be desperately short of money so I would take the initiative and organise a dinner".
Most of the more than 30 donors outlined in the evidence were unaware of exactly where their money was going. Judging by the coverage, they weren't too bothered about what particular pot their donations ended up in, as long as the money supported Peters and NZ First.
It was a logic that appeared to appeal to Judge Pheroze Jagose, who said in his judgment there was "nothing inherently dishonest" in the way the foundation obtained the funds as they were "expressly sought to support the party".
"I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt [they] 'retained control' of the money against a better claim to it," Justice Jagose said in his decision.
The upshot was that there was no deception involved.
In effect, the judge threw out the SFO case, having earlier flagged permanent name suppression for the two defendants who he found not guilty of the charge against them.
On the surface, this is a major defeat for the SFO.
But SFO director Karen Chang said her office believed there was real value in bringing the case and shining a light on the conduct on question.
The SFO is considering the judgment.
In a statement, the SFO outlined that the court concluded the donors intended the $750,000 in question to go to the party, but because the funds were not deposited into the party's account, the court held they were not party donations under the Electoral Act.
Thus, the defendants were not required to transmit that money to the party and so were not guilty of failing to do so. The court acknowledged, however, that if they had been party donations, then there was "comprehensive evidence" that the defendants engaged in a dishonest scheme intending to deceive the party and its secretary, as charged by the SFO.
The SFO said the court also found that if they were party donations, although the defendants had acted dishonestly, the Crown had not disproved that they may have believed they were entitled to retain the money.
The SFO's decision to lay the charge ahead of the 2020 election arguably had serious consequences for the NZ First Party.
This is where Peters should be placing his venom.
He has good reason to be miffed on that score, as the charge against the pair was laid on September 29, 2020, just two weeks ahead of a general election.
Even though the SFO released a comfort statement making it clear that the defendants were not sitting MPs or officers of the party, there was a rub-off effect.
The case also follows two high-profile investigations the SFO announced against two sitting mayors: Auckland's Phil Goff and Lianne Dalziel of Christchurch. Neither investigation resulted in a subsequent action. But their names were put out in public. The NZ First pair's names were not disclosed and are now permanently suppressed.
On Monday, the SFO action against former MP Jami-Lee Ross and Chinese- Auckland businessman Zhang Yikun and his associates Zheng Shijia and Zheng Hengjia gets underway.
Name suppression does not apply in this case. The four face charges of deception, related to a $100,000 donation to National in 2017 and a $100,050 donation to the party in 2018.
The SFO said the defendants had "adopted a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem whereby the ... donation was split into sums of money less than $15,000 and transferred into bank accounts of eight different people before being paid to, and retained by, the National Party." Details in the parallel action against the Labour Party have yet to be disclosed.
The upshot from these cases is not a good look for New Zealand: that three political parties and two sitting mayors have faced SFO actions casts a pall across our body politic.
The Government has since moved to make donations more transparent. The SFO intends to provide input into an independent review of NZ's electoral law.
The situation also casts a pall across business. Paula Bennett was on the right track when she solicited nearly $2 million in donations from high-net-worth Kiwis who were prepared to make their donations to the National Party knowing their names would become public. Same also with Act NZ.
It should become the norm.