Exclusive: National gave money back after scandal

Electoral returns out next week will confirm that a National Party MP received $25,000 from a controversial businessman after Prime Minister John Key had a private dinner with him - at the man's home.

The PM has always maintained that he met Donghua Liu at a National Party fundraiser but would never say where. Today, the Weekend Herald can reveal that the fundraiser was actually a private dinner at Mr Liu's $4.75 million home in Remuera, where a smiling Mr Key and Jami-Lee Ross, the MP for Botany, were photographed alongside Mr Liu and his young family.

Afterwards, Mr Liu donated $25,000 that same month to Mr Ross' election campaign. But the following year, Mr Liu became a political embarrassment for the Government after a Herald investigation revealed the impact of the property developer's links to the National Party.

Maurice Williamson was forced to resign as a minister when the Herald revealed he had called police after Mr Liu was arrested on domestic violence charges and told them Mr Liu was a big investor in New Zealand. Mr Key said then that Mr Williamson had "crossed the line".

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Shortly after the election, Mr Ross refunded the large donation from Mr Liu's company - 15 months after it was given. Mr Ross has since disclosed the donation in candidate returns for the 2014 election due to be released by the Electoral Commission next week.

Mr Liu is upset that Mr Ross refunded the $25,000 cheque, which he regarded as a "slap in the face".

The 53-year-old pleaded guilty to the domestic violence charges in April last year, but was in the Auckland District Court this week seeking to withdraw those admissions. He was successful and the case is likely to now head to trial.

Outside court, he told the Herald he gave $25,000 to Mr Ross through the "Botany Cabinet Club" and "subsequently this amount was refunded".

"It was very strange. The refund was sent to my lawyer, I wasn't told about it in person."

Asked whether he thought the National Party was embarrassed about the donation because of the publicity surrounding his court case, Mr Liu said: "It's better to not comment, and let the public make their own judgment."

Mr Liu stressed that he always made donations to politicians when they asked for financial support and any money he gave was in good faith without any expectation.

But the discovery of the private dinner with the Liu family and the $25,000 donation to a National MP raises new questions about the Prime Minister's meetings with the wealthy businessman.

When previously asked last year about his personal contact with Mr Liu, a spokeswoman for Mr Key stated: "As Prime Minister and the leader of the National Party, Mr Key attends a number of functions up and down the country which are attended by a large number of people. While we don't have a record of who attends these events, Mr Key recalls seeing Mr Liu at various functions, including a dinner as part of a National Party fundraiser."

She went on to say the fundraiser was in August 2013 at a "private home and we will not be disclosing the address in Auckland" - without clarifying the dinner was at Mr Liu's home.

Yesterday, the PM stood by his statement and declined to answer any questions. "The Prime Minister's statement was quite correct regarding his recollection of seeing Mr Liu at a number of events, including at a dinner," a spokeswoman said.

"Any questions regarding candidate donations are a matter for individual candidates."

Last night, Jami-Lee Ross said he did not intend to insult Mr Liu and any negative publicity associated to the businessman was not the reason the $25,000 was returned.

He said the Liu donation was given to be used in the local Botany campaign, but was not spent as a $24,000 donation from the National Party covered his expenses.

"So when the [donation and expense] returns were being put together after the election, it was decided the $25,000 should be returned to the donor because it was not used.

"There was no intent to slap anyone in the face."