Jami-Lee Ross laid his own path to destruction on June 25.

It was then he chose to record National Party leader Simon Bridges.

Those inside the party who have listened to the recording point to Ross' leading questions and hanging statements about a $100,000 donation.

It appears, they say, Ross was trying to draw Bridges into a trap.

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National Party leader Simon Bridges takes a moment last month before discussing National MP Jami-Lee Ross. Photo / Getty Images
National Party leader Simon Bridges takes a moment last month before discussing National MP Jami-Lee Ross. Photo / Getty Images

Ross chose to make the recording. He saved the recording. He kept the recording for four months.

How, says one former party office holder, was it ever going to end well?

Ross has since released the recording and other bombshells, creating personal and political destruction unparalleled in our modern history.

The ambitious and high-flying upstart from east Auckland has seen his political career ruined in a spectacular exit from the National Party.

In doing so, he has exposed the myth of the party's unified and invulnerable political machine.

Ross had expected great reward for supporting Bridges. He had been elevated to the front bench but he had wanted more.

He later said he hadn't got what was promised as he helped Bridges into leadership. At various times, he says he was offered the role of Shadow Leader of the House and Chief Whip, both prestigious roles and one with higher earning power.

Sure, said Ross, he did wind up on the front bench - Bridges' old portfolio of Transport.

And yet he claims he told his leader: "Hey mate, I helped get you elected. You made certain promises and now you're going back on that.

"If the guy, if one of two people who helped you the most, can't rely on you to be true to your word, who can?"

And Ross, who did not respond to requests for an interview, didn't like being snubbed. There was a recent example of this in his own electorate.

Howick Community Board deputy chairwoman Katrina Bungard complained to the National Party over Ross' behaviour early last year.

Her refusal to support Ross' wife Lucy Schwaner to become chairwoman of the board led to a campaign by Ross to have her change her mind. There were strange calls from unknown numbers, shadowy political strategist Simon Lusk offering to help or hinder her national political ambitions and even a trespass notice from a senior citizen's morning tea.

It wasn't until National Party president Peter Goodfellow stepped in that Ross backed off.

Jami-Lee Ross, the MP for Botany, had expected great reward for supporting Bridges. Photo / Michael Craig
Jami-Lee Ross, the MP for Botany, had expected great reward for supporting Bridges. Photo / Michael Craig

Ross had always been in a hurry. He was 16 when he left school and 18 when elected to Manukau City Council. He came into Parliament in 2011 in the Botany byelection, the same year Lusk with blogger Cameron Slater attempted to start a training programme for National MPs.

Lusk had enjoyed success with some candidates in 2008 and he was looking to capitalise on that after he - with Slater - had eased Ross' entry to Parliament.

The pair have a particular style of politics which has been described as cynical and negative.

In private messages from Lusk to Slater, hacked from Slater's computer in 2014, the strategist told the blogger he got the biggest "high" in politics when he could "wreck someone".

Slater told the NZ Herald in 2014: "I play politics like Fijians play rugby. My role is smashing your face into the ground."

It was a style of politics which made the National Party nervous. Slater, in an unpublished interview, spoke of how Goodfellow didn't want him in the party.

"Sure, Simon and I have people who don't like us but that's because we're pretty up front and blunt with our opinions."

It wasn't simply their forthright views. It was the type of politics they were imparting.
Katrina Bungard, who would later complain about how Ross' had treated her in a local government campaign, attended meetings run by the pair and left feeling uneasy. What was said made her feel uncomfortable, she recalls.

"They were strange, intense meetings."

The unpopularity in the party didn't deter all. MPs kept contact with Lusk, says one former colleague. "They were paying him a monthly retainer… up to $1000 a month. Some of them are still there."

It is unknown whether Ross had paid or was still paying Lusk, who emerged again to help during this recent crisis, or whether any other MPs continued to make payments.

Then, in 2014, the party's opposition to Lusk and Slater became absolute after the publication of Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics. It exposed the pair as engaged in embarrassing and questionable activities which brought ministers - and the Prime Minister - into disrepute.

As most National Party politicians worked to create distance, Ross was believed to have maintained contact.

His did so enjoying the patronage of Maurice Williamson and Judith Collins, powerful and senior MPs who are also associated with Slater.

Political campaigner Simon Lusk of Havelock North with his dogs Bruce and Mabo on the Tukituki River, Havelock North. Photo / Warren Buckland
Political campaigner Simon Lusk of Havelock North with his dogs Bruce and Mabo on the Tukituki River, Havelock North. Photo / Warren Buckland

Under their tutelage, he was recognised by fellow MPs as a hard worker who was smart in how he operated.

Ross also enjoyed kudos through building strong connections with the immigrant Chinese community, which brings in significant donations to the party. His previous two homes are a short walk from the enormous and striking Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple.

He became chief whip, which gave him access to information and influence. It came with a seat on the party board.

In Dirty Politics, Hager wrote of Lusk working to form a collective of "fiscal conservatives" who could move the National Party to the right.

Some believe the influence of Lusk and Slater could be seen in politics as practised by Ross.

The former colleague: "It was almost like (Ross) was wanting to train to take over as the 'Dark Prince', from (Murray) McCully."

The young MP sensed the winds of change when Sir John Key resigned and opened the leadership for contest.

Rather than backing Collins, his mentor, Ross, meanwhile, gathered support for Bridges as deputy leader. Bridges wanted to be deputy for the eventual winner, Sir Bill English.

Then in Opposition, when English stepped down, Ross again backed Bridges and did so this time directly against Collins.

Travel expenses leak

It was late September and Simon Bridges had two big problems.

The leak of his travel expenses was awkward. There were high costs attached to Bridges' tour of the country.

It wasn't so much the leak of the expenses. It was the open speculation the leaker came from inside the National Party which had the potential to gnaw away at confidence in Bridges.

Ross holding his press conference outside the Wellington Central Police Station after his interview with detectives. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ross holding his press conference outside the Wellington Central Police Station after his interview with detectives. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Such was National's self-confidence, its own MPs and staff muttered darkly about Labour Party plots and speculated as to whether Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard was behind the leak.

Bridges had demanded an inquiry and Mallard obliged - then dropped it after desperate text messages apparently from the leaker cited mental health issues if they were exposed.

Undeterred, Bridges decided to hold his own inquiry. Lawyers were hired, his MPs signed Privacy Waivers to allow their computer and phones to be examined and a report was due in just weeks.

Then there was Jami-Lee Ross. The Botany MP had been his "numbers' man" - the caucus fellow who had gathered support behind his bid for the leadership.

Now there were complaints. Four women had directly complained of his adverse behaviour.

It wouldn't stop there. Party colleagues knew there were others who would also have stories to tell, were they to be asked.

Parliament is a place where such questions are not asked. It was like affairs. People knew they were happening and simply looked the other way. Speaking the answer out loud would mean action must be taken.

When it came to Ross, Bridges was running out of places to look.

Ross, it was known among National MPs, "did not have a good relationship with his staff".

"A high turnover of staff… there were people leaving in tears," says a former colleague of Ross.

"You can look at a handful of Members of Parliament and see exactly that. They rattle through (staff) very quickly.

"They wind up doing it all themselves because Parliamentary Services won't recruit anyone - they've already had to pay out four or five staff."

It was also known in the caucus Ross had carried out an extra-marital relationship with a fellow MP which had ended badly.

The complainants of which Bridges was aware were all women and included the MP with whom Ross had a relationship. She had spoken with concern about adverse behaviour exhibited by her former lover.

Ross was in danger of becoming a serious liability.

The events which led to Ross' moment of crisis can be pieced together using blog posts by Ross' support person, anti-National blogger Cameron Slater, interviews with insiders and an analysis of the unfolding events.

It sees Bridges, chief of staff Jamie Gray, and deputy leader Paula Bennett waiting for Ross on September 26 to deliver news which would see the end of his high-flying success in politics.

"Concerns around inappropriate behaviour were raised separately to the leak investigation and put to Mr Ross immediately," said a National Party spokesman this week.
"At that time there was no evidence to suggest who was behind the leak."

In the meeting which followed, the allegations were laid out. Allegations of harassment and inexcusable treatment of those who worked in Parliamentary offices.

Ross was asked to explain. Instead, he demanded details - a point by point series of allegations. He offered no explanation.

Instead, there was denial and rejection of wrongdoing.

Ross was finished. He was told he had to resign his portfolios, take leave and return in 2019 as a lowly backbencher.

Ross later said: "Simon and Paula were judge, jury and executioners and it all happened in a matter of minutes."

Ross walked into the meeting with a career which held - in his view - few limits. He left with nothing.

Ross later said he returned to his apartment and was "quite a mess". Hours later, according to Slater, Ross called Lusk for advice. In a timeline constructed by Slater, the call was made at 1.45am.

Whatever advice was offered, a text transcript published by Slater shows Ross demanding Bridges meet him alone the next day.

Ross: "I will meet you one on one. This is between you and me."

Bridges: "It isn't. It's not personal. It is about the National caucus and party."

Ross: "It's about my career and your leadership. I am prepared to meet you one on one."

Bridges: "It is not about my leadership. It is about the National caucus and party.

Ross: "I have some things to say that only you should hear."

This meeting was also secretly recorded by Ross with an excerpt later played on NewstalkZB.

It is this meeting in which Bridges tells Ross complaints from four women is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ross: "You're expecting me to just accept that you've heard things and you've got some evidence but I'm not able to see that."

Bridges: "I think that happened. In all honesty Jami-Lee, if I gave you natural justice on these issues, it wouldn't be four or five. It would be fifteen."

That was Thursday. Ross returned to Parliament the next week and, on Tuesday, issued an agreed statement.

It stated: "Recently I have been dealing with some personal health issues. There are times in life where you have to put your own health and family first.

"As a husband and a father I need to do that at this time. That is why I have asked to have some time off on medical leave for a few months."

He would leave the front bench and his portfolio would go to someone else.

Ross went home to Auckland, saying later: "I could see my world crashing down around me." He would speak of having a "mental breakdown".

Dramatic exit

The week of Ross' dramatic exit began with the National Party receiving the investigation report it had hired PWC to produce.

It identified Ross as being the person who most likely leaked the expenses and later sent the anonymous text message expressing mental health issues.

In the case of the text message, Ross had said he was with Bridges when it was received. It would mean - if he was in the room - he had sent it while with Bridges. By Ross' description of events, he then pressed Bridges to drop the inquiry into the expenses leak.

Bennett and Bridges travelled to meet with Ross to explain he had been caught and there were consequences.

By now, they would have had serious concerns about the man who had occupied such a central role and risen to a position of influence within the party.

They left for Wellington and Ross took to Twitter: "Later today Simon Bridges is going to attempt to pin his leak inquiry on me.

"Some months ago I fell out with Simon. I have internally been questioning leadership decisions he was making, and his personal poll ratings which show he is becoming more and more unlikable in the public's eyes."

Ross then revealed he had secretly recorded Bridges, claiming to capture his leader allegedly discussing "unlawful activity that he was involved in".

"This evidence led Simon to push me out on medical leave a few weeks ago. It was essentially an attempt to stop me from speaking publicly."

Ross revealed to media he had secretly recorded Bridges, claiming to capture his leader allegedly discussing
Ross revealed to media he had secretly recorded Bridges, claiming to capture his leader allegedly discussing "unlawful activity that he was involved in". Photo / Mark Mitchell

In Wellington, gazumped by their already-rogue MP, Bennett and Bridges fronted media to reveal the contents of the report.

Bridges spoke of the leak, the text message and other issues involving Ross "conduct" which revealed a "pattern" of behaviour.

The National caucus would meet the next day to vote on whether Ross would be suspended, he said.

Those issues were separate from Ross' health, which he took seriously. "Today I have taken steps to ensure Jami-Lee has the necessary support around him at this time."

He dismissed the allegations from Ross.

"This is about a single member of Parliament."

It was about Jami-Lee Ross, who was preparing to drive to Wellington.

He had made a plan and the plan was Wellington. It was nine hours of driving, he said..

"I knew I needed to be here because that's where all of you are," he told media. "I needed the time out because I needed to clear my head and think about what I needed to do."

Cameron Slater later said Ross had slept in his car. By Ross' account, he rose and prepared a statement for media. At 10.46am, he turned on his phone ("there were about 100 messages") and announced a press conference for 11am.

Shortly after 11am, Ross stepped out on the black and white tiles in the foyer of Parliament and told gathered media: "This day has been coming for months."

And then he set forth on an extraordinary 50-minute press conference in which he repeatedly attacked Simon Bridges.

"My dramatic internal falling out with Simon Bridges is the reason why I am the target of a campaign to push me out."

He praised the "good people" in National, spoke kindly of Bennett. Bridges, though, bore the brunt of his attack.

"I've been critical of Simon Bridges' leadership because he went out to the country to introduce himself and the country said, 'Simon, we don't like you much'."

There were tanking poll ratings.

"The NZ public is not stupid. They had seen what I failed to see until now."

Ross spoke of how allegations of adverse behaviour towards women had an impact on his mental health.

He was fine, he said. "I got assistance. A doctor has says I'm fit enough to make decisions about my career and my future and to speak publicly so I'm doing that now."

The allegation had apparently emerged through women emerging over a "few weeks" prior to the confrontation with Bennett and Bridges.

Hr dismissed the claims.

"To the best of my knowledge, I have not harassed any women," he said."I have served in public office for 15 years and I have never once had such a complaint made against me until now."

His response was contrary to details which would emerge during the week, including former National Party candidate Katrina Bungard's allegations of a campaign by Ross during a community board power play.

Bungard came forward on October 18. It was the same day the Newsroom website ran claims from four anonymous women about adverse behaviour by Ross.

Ross attempted to seize the agenda the following day in an interview on NewstalkZB with Heather du Plessis Allan during which he again asserted his wellness.

Having been confronted with actual, specific details, Ross acknowledged he was aware of Bungard's specific allegation and offered her an public apology. He said the complaint raised by Bungard had been dealt with through mediation, carried out by Goodfellow and regional chairman Andrew Hunt.

He had apologised during the mediation, he said, which "covered up" Bungard's complaints. Bungard, National's most recent candidate for Manurewa, has said she was content with the resolution and believed the party had done all it could.

Ross also admitted to extra-marital affairs, named one of the women he slept with in the interview, and apologised to his wife.

"I haven't been a good husband and I need to do a lot of things in the future to make that right and I'm going to continue doing that."

His infidelity was something of which his wife had been unaware.

Ross claimed the details had emerged because he had challenged Bridges.

"When you question power… when you become a liability for the media, you wind up in the media."

As his denials over harassment collapsed into apologies, so were his claims of evidence proving Bridges' corruption.

When the claims are studied alongside the evidence offered by Ross, they collapse.

For example, he claimed the $100,000 donation made to National came from a Chinese businessman and had never been declared. Yet when Ross left Wellington police station, he described how the money came from eight different donors and was under $15,000 - meaning the legal limit for public declaration was never reached and it never needed to be made public.

When Ross produced text messages as evidence to support his position, the contents actually showed the National Party going through a rigorous process to check the source of the money.

And yet Ross insisted to du Plessis-Allan the evidence was clear.

In Ross' view, his public shaming had been orchestrated by the National Party as revenge for disclosing its secrets.

And he was preparing to disclose more.

Text messages

Then, Ross' mental health appeared to collapse.

Almost 24 hours after the NewstalkZB interview, Slater says Ross found himself alone in his car, "homeless" and scrolling through text messages trying to work out how so much had changed.

Among the messages was one one sent by his former MP lover.

It was an angry diatribe which ended with the words: "You deserve to die." In later blog posts, Slater has tried to claim it was a message urging self-harm but the content of the message carries no explicit instruction.

Ross tried to seize the initiative when he talked to Newstalk ZB. Photo / Michael Craig
Ross tried to seize the initiative when he talked to Newstalk ZB. Photo / Michael Craig

Yet Ross responded with the words: "You get your wish." He then turned his phone off.

It was a message which sparked a frenzy of activity. The woman called Ross repeatedly and sent text messages asking if he was okay and had support. She also called for urgent help.

National Party chief of staff Jamie Gray was alerted. It appears it was he who called Ross' mental health professional - the details had been supplied after Ross took leave from Parliament.

Police were called to track down the MP. It is likely it was a situation in which police needed to enact emergency cellphone tracking provisions. Ross was found and taken into care at Middlemore Hospital.

It was during this time Slater emerged publicly to openly come alongside Ross in opposition to the under siege National Party. Until then, he had operated behind the scenes through briefing journalists or being quoted as an anonymous "friend" of Ross.

Slater is a curious character in National Party politics. His father John Slater, a former National Party president, was blue to the bone. Slater grew up playing with children of National Party ministers as their parents discussed affairs of state.

Slater discovered blogging after a business failure and an extended period of mental illness so debilitating he was unable to work. The Whaleoil blog became his outlet and treatment. It also became a soapbox for his political views, or for the views of those he supported.

This was tolerated until he and Lusk were seen to be meddling in the management of the party and selection of candidates. Then after Dirty Politics in 2014 he became a pariah. No National MP or hopeful candidate wanted to be associated with Slater or his blog. His relevance diminished, as did the prominence of his blog as his access to genuine inside information dwindled to the point where it appeared to disappear.

In emerging with support for Ross, Slater was back in the thick of it. The struggles with mental health was also an area with which he was very familiar.

Slater wrote of working with an unnamed individual to help Ross, saying: "We both have a mutual friend who I consider to be one of the wisest people I know. We are both working hard to support Jami-Lee Ross as friends."

Those previously close to Slater say the man he called "like a second father" was Paul Honnor, millionaire and Seventh Day Adventist church leader. Ross and Slater had previously attended Honnor's weekly prayer meetings at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Manukau.

Honnor has long supported Slater and was even a director of the Whaleoil blog holding company, Social Media Consultants Ltd, for three years.

The businessman was believed to have had an influential role in guiding Ross, who grew up without a father.

With Ross in care, Slater accused the National Party of a "hit job" through releasing the report into the leaker when Ross' mental health was in a parlous state.

The party had said it had "taken seriously the mental health concerns raised by Mr Ross and the medical professionals he has been involved with".

Slater's dismissal prompted a phone call from Bridges to offer the blogger assurances there was sincere concern and thought around Ross' mental health.

One senior figure inside National spoke of being astonished Bridges would make such a call, given Slater's opposition to the party.

For National, Slater's alignment with the rogue MP was a nightmare scenario. It appeared to allow the blogger access to the bereft MP's text messages, even while he was in care.

It was an unnerving position for the National Party, which had spoken internally of its ability to seek a High Court injunction on text messages and secret recordings. The debate was settled prior to Slater's emergence yet considered again when the blogger began angrily attacking National with the contents of Ross' phone.

In all, Ross spent little more than two days in residential mental health care before being discharged.

He has since effectively disappeared, announcing on Twitter in recent days: "I appreciate all the recent messages of support. I was well looked after by the fantastic people at Middlemore, and grateful for their care.

"On medical advice I remain on leave, but have given National my proxy vote to ensure Botany continues to be represented in Parliament."

Slater, meanwhile, appeared to be developing his campaign with a gradual release of text messages.

His last post on the subject was around the identity of Ross' MP lover and whether it should be made public.