New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has lashed out at what he says were "spurious allegations" levelled against two men acquitted over donations fraud today.
The former deputy prime minister's comments come after an anonymous duo — accused of obtaining by deception after donations to the New Zealand First Foundation (NZFF) — were this morning found not guilty in the High Court.
"From the moment these spurious allegations were first raised and then perpetuated by many in the media, day after day, and month after month, I maintained that there had been no wrongdoing," Peters said after the verdicts by Justice Pheroze Jagose, who presided over the judge-alone trial last month.
The SFO's director, however, says the prosecution was "shining a light on the conduct in question."
Peters has distanced himself from NZFF, which the court heard was established to help modernise and raise funds for the party, and has strenuously denied any wrongdoing after it first came under scrutiny in media reports during November 2019.
The accused pair were charged by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) just before the 2020 general election.
"We took the SFO to court before the last election and forced them to admit that no crime had been committed by the New Zealand First Leader, any New Zealand First Minister, Member of Parliament, or party member. However, the SFO then pursued charges against the New Zealand First Foundation," Peters said.
NZ First also failed in a bid to stop the charges from becoming public until after a government was formed.
When the charges became public, Peters said he and the party were "exonerated" and was critical of the SFO's decision to lay charges near the time of the election.
Peters claimed the victims of the case "are the New Zealand people and our democracy".
He also took particular umbrage with the media's reporting of the case.
"We once had a country where one was innocent until proven guilty. Now it is guilty until proven innocent," Peters said. "Sadly, a lot of people don't have the resources to clear their names, whether in the media or in the courts."
Peters' absence from the trial was a topic of discussion in the courtroom, with defence lawyer Tudor Clee arguing that NZ First's hierarchy was not deceived and the leader was "significantly" absent from the Crown's witness list.
Both of the defendants denied two charges of obtaining by deception for what the SFO alleged was a fraudulent scheme, over a four-year period to early 2020, to conceal nearly $750,000 in donations.
The SFO alleged the defendants' scheme was to deceive the NZ First party secretary and the Electoral Commission and maintain control of the donation money.
The Electoral Act requires a political party secretary to submit an annual return of donations to the Electoral Commission. Prosecutor Paul Wicks QC said none of the donations to the NZFF over the four-year period were accounted for.
Justice Jagose found the payments to NZFF were not "party donations" as defined under the Electoral Act.
For donations greater than $15,000 in a calendar year, the identity of the donor must also be noted.
The Government has proposed changes to donations law, including lowering the limit for public disclosure of donors from $15,000 to $5000 by the 2023 election.
In a statement, the SFO said it is considering today's judgment.
"The SFO had alleged that the defendants deceived the NZ First Party and secretaries, and by extension the Electoral Commission and voting public, by having $750,000 in party donations paid into non-party bank accounts.
The financial crimes agency, however, noted the High Court acknowledged that if the funds had been party donations, then there was "comprehensive evidence" the defendants engaged in a dishonest scheme.
"We believe there was real value in bringing this case and shining a light on the conduct in question," SFO Director Karen Chang said.
"The Government recently announced changes to our electoral law including increasing transparency around political donations. An independent review of New Zealand's electoral law is ongoing and we will provide input into this as appropriate."
Today's judgment follows Justice Jagose's decision two days ago to permanently suppress the identities of the two men.
Another political donations trial involving the Labour and National parties is due to begin in the High Court at Auckland on Monday.