Billy Te Kahika Jnr, the musician and lay preacher who tried unsuccessfully to parlay his Covid-19 conspiracy notoriety into a political career, has been convicted of a crime for the second time in less than a year.
In March, Te Kahika was ordered by an Auckland District Court judge to serve four months’ imprisonment for organising a protest in front of TVNZ’s central Auckland headquarters on the first day of the strict Covid-19 Delta variant lockdown.
However, he remains free while appealing that decision and won’t be sentenced for his new convictions - pertaining to his mishandling of political donations while co-leader of the anti-lockdown Advance NZ Party - until December.
Te Kahika, also known as Billy TK, was again placed in an Auckland District Court dock on Friday as his week-long trial ended with jurors returning guilty verdicts for two counts of failing to declare candidate donations, one count of failing to keep records of a donation and one count of failing to keep records of expenses.
He was acquitted, however, of the most serious charges he faced: two counts of obtaining by deception, which carries a maximum possible sentence of seven years’ imprisonment. Charges were also dropped mid-trial for two additional charges of failing to declare candidate donations.
The charges related to his unsuccessful election campaign in 2020 with the Advance New Zealand Party, which was founded by ousted National MP Jami-Lee Ross and joined forces with Te Kahika’s New Zealand Public Party.
In her opening address last week, Crown prosecutor Joanne Lee said Te Kahika obtained $15,000 from a donor, Michael Kelly, under the false pretence it would be used for campaign billboards. Te Kahika also knowingly filed false electoral returns, Lee said. And when the time came for him to verify the returns to the Electoral Commission, he was unable to because he had not kept records.
In July 2020, Kelly held a fundraising event in Eden Terrace in Auckland for Te Kahika’s NZ Public Party. Te Kahika spoke to an audience of around 150 people.
At the event, Kelly handed an envelope of $10,000 cash to Te Kahika and said to him “here’s a contribution to your campaign”, the court heard. Later in the evening, Te Kahika told Kelly the money would be spent on campaign billboards.
Kelly later donated another $5000 in cash to Te Kahika.
Political candidates are required to declare donations larger than $1500. When Kelly didn’t see his name as a donor on any of the Electoral Commission documents, he raised the issue with the entity. The commission referred the matter to police and Te Kahika was charged in September 2021.
In his opening statement, lawyer Paul Borich KC said Te Kahika’s defence was simple: the money was not given as a candidate donation.
“It was given to him as a personal gift, to help with his whānau - as a koha,” he told jurors.
Kelly was closely connected to Ross, Borich said. After the 2020 election loss, Te Kahika decided to resign from Advance NZ. Kelly got angry after the falling out and attempted to re-characterise the payment as a form of “payback”, jurors were told.
“In short, the defence here is that Michael Kelly is exacting vengeance - utu if you like,” Borich said.
Kelly, however, was the first witness called by the Crown and he adamantly denied the money was ever intended as a personal gift.
“It is 100 per cent not true,” he testified of the defendant’s claims. “I didn’t know the man, I didn’t know his financial situation. I was interested in supporting a political movement, primarily against vaccine mandates which I was concerned about.”
At one point during Kelly’s testimony, as he admitted to having posted several mean-spirited memes about Te Kahika on social media after their falling out, the defendant appeared to weep and was handed a box of tissues.
Te Kahika later posted an unusual mid-trial message to supporters on Facebook acknowledging his tears in the dock and claiming that he was being made to endure a “hostile judge”. The post was later taken down after it was brought to Judge Kate Davenport’s attention.
There have been very few previous criminal cases relating to failure to file election expenses and failure to declare candidate donations, Palmerston North District Court Judge Bruce Northwood noted in 2021 as he was tasked with sentencing another failed Advance NZ candidate, Ricky Cribb. The defendant was ordered to pay a $300 fine and $130 in court costs.
During that hearing, the judge cited two other instances involving candidates who were sentenced for those charges. A $200 fine was imposed for a candidate in the 2008 general election and a $3500 fine and discharge without conviction was imposed for a candidate in the 2017 election for donations totalling over $166,000.
Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.
Isaac Davison is an Auckland-based reporter who covers health issues. He joined the Herald in 2008 and has previously covered the environment, politics, and social issues.