Claims of being a foreign state's "operative" and irreparable damage to a "stellar" public reputation are reasons why the identity of a defendant in the Labour and National donations case should remain suppressed, a court has heard.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) prosecution involves seven defendants with political and business links, including former MP Jami-Lee Ross and New Zealand Order of Merit recipient Yikun Zhang.
The start of the joint trial over allegations of unlawful donations to both parties was delayed because of a positive Covid-19 test by Zhang today.
Instead, the High Court at Auckland spent the day hearing arguments about whether three of the defendants who still have suppression should continue to enjoy anonymity.
Marc Corlett QC, who is acting for one of six people facing 12 charges over donations to Labour, argued publication of his client's name would irredeemably damage his "stellar reputation".
"There is a public interest in open reporting, there is, in my submission, nothing more than a public curiosity in his name being published at this stage," he told the court.
However, Corlett said if his client was convicted the position may well change.
Justice Ian Gault, who is presiding over what is expected to be a lengthy judge-alone trial, asked if Corlett was suggesting those charged should have suppression until and if convicted.
"I would submit that should be the position," Corlett said. "It makes no difference to the readers of Stuff who this particular defendant is.
"The interest that the public has is a passing one. The damage to [my client's] reputation is a permanent one."
Corlett also said he understood expert evidence would be called during the trial to suggest one of the defendants was an "operative" of a foreign government with a mission to influence New Zealand political parties.
"Evidence that can be fairly described as inflammatory," Corlett said. "It will only add to the irretrievable damage".
Corlett has also foreshadowed an application for a discharge without conviction for his client at the conclusion of the SFO's evidence.
A lawyer for the man's employer also sought suppression for the business.
"It's not a fast food business, it's not changing the tyre of a vehicle, it's the taint that's associated with something like this [which is damaging]," he said.
"We retain confidence in [our employee] and if we had any doubts about it then we wouldn't be making this application ... It's a difficult situation, your honour."
Legal counsel for the second defendant seeking suppression, Yvonne Mortimer-Wang, also argued publication of her client's identity carried risk and should not be permitted.
While Sam Lowry, for the third person, said his client had no criminal record and no public profile.
"The suppression of his name will end up suppressing next to nothing in this trial," he said.
Lowry also attacked the SFO's case against his client and said it was absent of a smoking gun.
"Even dressed in its Sunday best the Crown's case is that [my client's] role was very much in the background."
Robert Stewart, who acted for a host of media organisations including the Herald's publisher NZME, said public interest in the case was high because it surrounded the integrity of the country's political donations.
The public has an inherent interest in the case and has a right to know those involved and if the law is working, he argued.
"Names of people in these situations do matter."
Stewart also said a person's profession should not alter the threshold for suppression.
"The test is the test, whether they are engaged in a profession of public trust or sell widgets on the street corner."
Ron Mansfield QC, counsel for Ross, the former National MP and senior party whip, added it was unfair for the defendants who do not have suppression to have an unnecessary heavy focus on them during the trial.
Justice Gault reserved his decision on suppression and said he was hopeful opening statements would be heard tomorrow.
Donations, art auctions and a Chinese imperial robe
Along with Zhang, businessmen brothers Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng also face allegations over donations to Labour and National.
The trio had already been charged alongside Ross in January 2020.
The allegations against Zhang, who was made an MNZM in 2018 for services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community, involve buying five paintings from Labour for $60,000 in March 2017.
He also bought an antique imperial robe and two other works of art for $100,000 at a Labour auction event in September 2017.
The event was attended by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, then general secretary of the Labour Party Andrew Kirton, and other senior party members.
Zhang has since donated the robe to his hometown museum in China's Guangdong Province, his lawyers have said. The paintings were displayed in his home, they added.
The SFO alleges the identity of the true donor was not disclosed in either political parties' annual return of party donations.
The Electoral Act requires a registered party to declare in its annual returns the identities of those who donate, contribute or loan more than $15,000 in a given year, regardless of how many donations make up the amount.
The SFO's case over the National donations followed an inquiry into contributions of $100,000 in 2017 and $100,050 in 2018.
The investigation was prompted after Ross went public and went to police with claims former party leader Simon Bridges had asked him to collect a $100,000 donation from Zhang, which was then divided into smaller amounts in an attempt to hide it.
Bridges, who is expected to give evidence in the trial, has strenuously denied the claims.
Ross, Zhang and the Zheng brothers face charges of obtaining by deception for allegedly adopting a "fraudulent device, trick, or stratagem" which resulted in the National donations being split into sums of money less than $15,000.
Hengjia Zheng was also charged with supplying false information to the SFO.
Lawyers for Zhang and the Zheng brothers have said the charges came from "unprecedented political infighting".
"Our clients believe they are casualties of the turmoil created through mudslinging during the high-profile fallout following Jami-Lee Ross' revelations and allegations about the National Party and will be defending the charges against them."
Ross, the former Botany representative who campaigned for the 2020 election with the minor and controversial party Advance NZ, has famously claimed he is a whistleblower.
"There is no own goal," he proclaimed after his first court appearance.
In February 2021, Ross also agreed to destroy an electronic copy of SFO documents inadvertently "leaked" to him. The papers, which he waved in the House of Representatives in 2020, contained confidential information regarding donors to National in 2017 and 2018.
In his judgment, Justice Pheroze Jagose found the payments to NZFF were not "party donations" as defined under the Electoral Act.
However, if the money was classed as party donations, the judge said there is "comprehensive evidence" the duo used a dishonest scheme for deception.