A close confidant to Maori King Tūheitia has pleaded guilty and been convicted by the Serious Fraud Office with lying and misappropriating tens of thousands of dollars in charitable funds.
Rangi Whakaruru - who has been the right-hand man to the Maori King since 2009 - pleaded guilty this morning in the Auckland District Court to five counts of obtaining by deception and one of lying to Serious Fraud Office investigators.
The guilty plea was met with approval by a number of Tainui iwi members in the public gallery who had travelled from Hamilton for the hearing. One caused a disturbance in the courtroom by angrily shouting out: "Thank you for pleading guilty!"
The court case follows an investigative series by the Herald.
It is understood King Tūheitia was interviewed by SFO officials during their investigation, but the early guilty plea means he will not be required to give evidence as a witness.
Whakaruru, 56, formally known as Te Rangihiroa Whakaruru, is listed in court documents as still having the occupation of "private secretary to the Māori King".
A fortnight ago Whakaruru successfully made an urgent application for interim name suppression after the Herald became aware of the pending criminal prosecution and sought comment on his intended response. This order lapsed today and he did not seek to extend it further.
Whakaruru's lawyer Guyon Foley agreed with Judge Robert Ronayne that publication of his name, given the guilty pleas, now had a "certain inevitability".
The majority of charges related to more than $27,000 in medical expenses incurred by Whakaruru for private gastric band surgery in May 2016 and billed back to the Ururangi Trust - a then-registered charity funded by Tainui set up to handle expenses related to the King's healthcare.
The court heard Whakaruru instructed the private MercyAscot hospital to amend their first invoice issued to him, removing his name and instead replacing it with Ururangi, in order to induce Waikato-Tainui to pay for the procedure.
Whakaruru also ordered the creation of three invoices in late 2016, totalling $80,000, purportedly for medical care for King Tūheitia and his family at MercyAscot hospital, and submitted these to then-Waikato-Tainui chief executive Parekawhia McLean for payment.
Todd Simmonds, prosecutor for the Serious Fraud Office, told the court these medical procedures in question had actually been carried out at Auckland Hospital in the public health system and had incurred no costs to Ururangi.
Simmonds said Whakaruru had, after Waikato-Tainui paid out on the forged invoices, used his signing authority to transfer tens of thousands of dollars into his personal bank accounts.
Whakaruru also pleaded guilty to lying to Serious Fraud Office investigators earlier this year after he repeatedly insisted that he had paid for his gastric bypass operation himself.
"Instead of telling the truth, the defendant lied," Simmons said.
The court heard Whakaruru had also doctored an invoice for a trailer he purchased and later sought reimbursement for, by more than $2000 in order to pocket the difference.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 24. Whakaruru was remanded on bail.
Simmonds said, despite Whakaruru's lack of prior convictions, that: "Prison is a real possibility given the nature and extent of the offending"
The Herald revealed in 2017 alleged misspending at Ururangi, covering the use of charity funds to acquire multiple luxury vehicles - each costing more than $100,000 - and tens of thousands of dollars in private international air travel, and denials from Whakaruru that his 2016 tummy tuck had been billed as a royal expense.
The stories triggered first a Charities Services investigation into Ururangi, and the Internal Affairs unit then referred the matter to the SFO who raided the King's office in 2018 in a search for records related to Whakaruru.
Waikato-Tainui later deregistered Ururangi from the charities register, reducing its need to file public accounts of its spending, and appointed Sir Wira Gardiner as lead trustee of a new entity to manage royal affairs.
Outside of court Whakaruru, on his way to register his bail, said he had "no comment" to make on today's events.