"If s*** hit the fan, so to speak, it would have all landed on me."
That's what was going through then-National MP Jami-Lee Ross' head as he recorded a phone conversation with party leader Simon Bridges in 2017 about a "dodgy" donation, he told police in an interview that was played in the High Court at Auckland today.
But the October 2018 interview, in which Ross sought to position himself as a whistleblower, didn't have its intended effect. Prosecutors for the Serious Fraud Office introduced it into evidence as part of their criminal case against Ross, for which Bridges is expected to be only a witness.
Ross is charged alongside businessman and New Zealand Order of Merit member Yikun Zhang, businessmen brothers Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng, and three others with political ties who have name suppression. All seven defendants are accused of helping to illegally mask large donations from Zhang to either National or Labour in the year prior to his Order of Merit honour, which was bestowed in 2018 for services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community.
The judge-alone trial before Justice Ian Gault, now in its third week, started last month with each defendant pleading not guilty.
Labour MPs Andrew Little and Michael Wood were called to testify last week as prosecutors focused on an allegedly sham party fundraiser art auction in April 2017 in which Zhang is said to have bought five paintings for $60,000 using other peoples' names.
But today's testimony focused mostly on a $100,000 donation to National that Ross acknowledged helping to co-ordinate in 2017.
Donations totalling more than $15,000 over the course of a year must be disclosed to the Electoral Commission, according to the Electoral Act. Prosecutors allege Zhang split the donations into lesser amounts and recruited people to make the donations in their own names so he could skirt the requirement.
Ross' interview with police was at his own request. He had told the media one day earlier, when airing the same allegations against Bridges, that he would be doing so.
Looking comfortable as he sat in an interview room at the Police National Headquarters in Wellington, Ross told Detective Senior Sergeant James Patea that he and Bridges had attended a dinner with Zhang when the idea of the $100,000 donation came up. He got a call from Bridges a week later after the donation was confirmed, he said.
"Simon Bridges asked me to collect this donation," Ross told the detective, reading aloud from his media statement from the day earlier. "He was at pains to point out that the donation should not be made public and could I ensure this?
"I was naive and acted on my leader's instructions. I duly carried out Simon Bridges' wish. A $100,000 donation was collected. It was split into smaller donations that are below the $15,000 declaration threshold.
"Simon Bridges will deny that he asked me to do this ... But on 25 June, after the donation was received, I called Simon. Knowing that the leader of the National Party had asked me to carry out an unlawful act, I had the presence of mind to record the conversation Simon and I had."
Ross also played the phone recording for the detective. In it, Bridges acknowledged a dinner at a wealthy donor's house and a $100,000 donation. The colleagues also discussed the political ambition of Colin Zheng, described as Zhang's right-hand man, and how his Chinese ethnicity might look for the party.
But splitting the donation up or trying to mask Zhang's identity was never explicitly mentioned in Ross' recording.
Ross also showed the detective a photo on his phone of a piece of paper with the names of eight people who he said were to be listed as the alternative donors. The paper had been given to him but he had thrown the original copy away, he said.
"I don't think the donor did anything wrong," Ross said of Zhang. "There should have been some actions taken by the leader of the party to ensure the party was complying with the law."
But Ross also acknowledged that he knew what he was doing didn't seem right.
"It is a bit dodgy - possibly in breach of the law," he said of what was going through his mind as he decided to record the call with Bridges. "If it comes back to bite the party in the backside ... it came into the Botany account [Ross' electorate] because I was asked to collect it.
"... So there's a direct link to me and if s*** hit the fan, so to speak, it would have all landed on me ... I recorded it for that reason - because I could smell danger."
Bridges is expected to take the witness stand later this week.