EXPLAINER: Why are party donations sparking legal action? Is the problem with the law — as PM Jacinda Ardern suggests — or with people trying to get around it?
Four of New Zealand's political parties are now embroiled in active criminal court cases or facing investigation from the department responsible for detecting financial crimes and corruption.
An inquiry into a Labour Party donation is the most recent to be given a court date before a judge - Monday.
But after a dozen charges were filed last week, Prime Minister and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern indicated there was something wrong with the system - not the alleged behaviour of those connected to the donations.
"This isn't a good environment for anyone, for no political party, but nor for New Zealanders, they want to have confidence in the system, so let's look at the law," she told reporters.
"That sends a message to us, in the political system, that we should be looking at the way our regime works."
It was an odd approach to take from the Prime Minister given the strikingly similar nature of the current cases, involving Labour, the National Party, and the NZ First Foundation. After all, ignorance of the law is no defence.
All the donations cases before the courts include allegations of deliberate attempts to hide donors' identities. If proven in court, this would indicate the system is not the issue, but rather the attempts to corrupt it, avoid disclosure, and potentially mislead voters.
The rules state that a registered party must declare in its annual returns the identities of those who donate, contribute or loan more than a total of $15,000 in a given year, regardless of how many donations make up the amount, according to the Electoral Commission.
Parties need to immediately report to the commission - within 10 working days - donations and loans of more than $30,000 from a single donor or lender within a 12-month period. Parties may also keep up to $1500 of any anonymous donation, and up to $50 of any donation from an overseas person after a law reform in 2019.
However, a party can keep more of an anonymous donation if it is a "donation protected from disclosure" - a payment the commission makes to the party on behalf of a New Zealander who wants to remain nameless.
Between two successive elections, parties can receive up to $322,940 in donations protected from disclosure, according to the Electoral Commission.
While Transparency International named New Zealand and Denmark as the world's least corrupt countries earlier this year, the index is based on perceived levels of public sector corruption.
National leader Judith Collins has indicated there is more bribery and corruption in New Zealand, but not enough resources to investigate it. During last year's campaign - on the same day charges related to the NZ First Foundation were publicly announced - she promised to double the SFO's annual budget from $12.7 million to $25m if elected.
The Government allocated a little more than $14m for preventing, detecting, investigating and prosecuting cases of serious financial crime, including corruption in its Budget 2021.
The relatively small budget, however, hasn't stopped the SFO and its director Julie Read from targeting the seemingly murky world of political party donations.
Labour: 12 charges, six people, $34,840
Charges filed last week over a $34,840 Labour Party donation revealed six people allegedly orchestrated an illusion to conceal the amount and identity of the true donor.
The SFO claimed in court documents that the aim of the six - a solicitor, public servant, social worker, and three businesspeople - was to provide the donor "freedom from any public scrutiny".
Each of the accused is charged with two counts of obtaining by deception over the donation in March 2017. The SFO alleges the identity of the donor was not disclosed in the party's annual return of party donations.
The group are accused of adopting a "fraudulent device, trick or stratagem" where the donation was paid via an intermediary account before being paid to, and retained by, the Labour Party.
Court papers also allege the group provided five names to "create the illusion" of five donations of sums of less than $15,000 to conceal the amount and identity of the actual donor.
The group, some of whom are understood to be seeking name suppression, are due to appear in court for the first time on May 24.
None of the defendants, however, are sitting MPs or are current or former officials of the Labour Party.
Labour Party general secretary Rob Salmond claimed the party has "complied with the law".
National: Two $100,000 donations and an own goal?
Former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross was charged alongside brothers and businessmen Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng, and New Zealand Order of Merit recipient Yikun Zhang in January last year.
The investigation into National donations was prompted after Ross went public with allegations against former party leader Simon Bridges, who has strenuously denied the claims. Ross laid a complaint with police, which then sparked the SFO inquiry.
The former Botany representative, who campaigned for the 2020 election with the minor and controversial party Advance NZ, has claimed he is a whistleblower on alleged donations deception.
"There is no own goal," he told media after his first court appearance.
Ross and the three businessmen all deny the charges.
A High Court trial has been scheduled for September.
The National Party, meanwhile, has also maintained it was never involved in the alleged activity.
"The party does not accept the way Jami-Lee Ross is characterising his part in the donations which have led to charges being made against him, not the party. This has always been about a vendetta by Mr Ross," a party spokesman earlier said.
"The party expects the trial of charges against Mr Ross will involve evidence which will inform the public of the true facts."
Charging documents against Ross and the businessmen allege two donations of $100,000 in 2017 and $100,050 in 2018 were made where the identity of the donor was not disclosed in the National Party's annual return.
"The defendants adopted a fraudulent device, trick, or stratagem whereby the 2018 donation was split into sums of money less than $15,000, and transferred into the bank accounts of eight people, before being paid to, and retained by, the National Party," the papers allege.
The same allegation is made by the SFO for the 2017 donation.
Earlier this year Ross also agreed to destroy the electronic copy of SFO documents inadvertently "leaked" to him.
The papers, which Ross waved in the House last July, contained confidential information regarding donors to the National Party in 2017 and 2018.
NZ First Foundation: Secrecy and claims of an attack on Winston Peters
Meanwhile, two people charged over allegations of improper political donations involving the New Zealand First Foundation will wait until next year before standing before a jury.
A High Court trial is due to start in June, 2022 for the pair, who have remained anonymous since first being charged with obtaining by deception by the SFO last September.
Neither of the accused was a candidate in the 2020 election or a member of their staff, or a current member of the New Zealand First party.
Charging documents allege the pair deposited $746,881 between September 30, 2015, and February 14 last year with "intent to deceive the donors of the monies, the party secretary of the New Zealand First Party and/or the Electoral Commission".
Suppression has been opposed by the SFO and a consortium of media organisations, including the Herald's publisher NZME, which unsuccessfully attempted to name the pair before last year's election.
The NZ First Party also attempted to stop the charges becoming public until after a government was formed.
One of the defendants has also complained the case has been "politicised" and is an attack on party leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.
A judge has, however, said the case is inherently political.
Peters has distanced himself from the foundation - reported to have bankrolled the political party - and has denied any wrongdoing. After the charges became public, Peters claimed at a press conference he and the party had been "exonerated".
The accused pair have denied the charges.
Māori Party: $320,000 under investigation after 'volunteer mistake'
Just last month police referred an inquiry to the SFO over donations to the Māori Party.
The Electoral Commission had previously sent the matter to the police.
The donations total $320,000, and consist of $158,000 from former party leader John Tamihere, $120,000 from Aotearoa Te Kahu, and $50,000 from the National Urban Māori Authority.
In its statement, the Electoral Commission said it was forwarding the matter to the police "for further investigation relating to failure to declare donations or aggregated donations over $30,000 made to the Māori Party within 10 working days."
The lateness of declaring donations would not be the concern of the SFO.
Māori Party president Che Wilson said a mistake had been made by party volunteers who had been "learning the ropes".
The party said when the error was discovered contact was made with the Electoral Commission.
The National Urban Māori Authority is a registered charity which runs health and social services and is part-funded by a Whanau Ora commissioning agency.
Auckland Mayor: Phil Goff and auctions
In February 2020, the SFO confirmed it was investigating Phil Goff's campaign expenses after a referral from police.
While the SFO did not disclose the nature of the inquiry, Goff's 2019 campaign director Shale Chambers said the issue appeared to be the use of auctions in the 2016 and 2019 campaigns.
In September 2019, electoral officer Dale Ofsoske passed a complaint about Goff's 2016 election expenses to police over a $366,000 auction declaration, which included a book being sold for $150,000.
The book had belonged Goff - a former Minister of Foreign Affairs - and been signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Goff's former Labour Party colleague and Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel also had her expenses investigated but she has since been cleared.