New Zealand First tried to gag the Serious Fraud Office from announcing charges in the New Zealand First Foundation case until after next month's election.
The party applied for court orders to prohibit the SFO from releasing details of the obtaining by deception charges, which it today revealed were filed against two defendants with name suppression.
A High Court judge, however, said the party's bid was "not particularly strong" on the evidence he could see.
"There is no evidence before me that the [SFO] director's decision to issue the public statement was influenced by political considerations or that the timeframe she announced for the investigation's completion was set because of the election. I accept there is a risk of confusion and a negative impact on its electoral prospects," Justice Matthew Palmer said.
"However, I consider there is a significant public interest in the New Zealand voting public being informed during an election campaign about criminal charges of serious fraud against people or organisations related to political parties. Ultimately, I consider the public interest in transparency outweighs the inconvenience of the announcement to NZ First.
"It will be up to the political system including the media, rather than the judicial system, to ensure the transparency of the announcement is not obscured by confusion and misinformation," Justice Palmer said.
The decision, made by the judge last week but only released publicly this evening, also revealed NZ First's lawyers objected to the SFO "indexing the timing of the investigation into the foundation to the election".
"Based on the public statements made by [SFO director Julie Read] we conclude that: she is expediting the investigation and a prosecution decision so it can be made prior to the general election, but there is no intention by her to complete the Labour Party investigation prior to the general election. Contrary to the statement that she is acting consistently, this clearly demonstrates inconsistency of treatment by the director between two political parties being investigated in relation to the same issue," NZ First lawyers Cook Morris Quinn told the SFO in a letter.
The SFO, in July, said it had commenced an investigation in relation to donations made to the Labour Party in 2017. It did not reveal when that investigation would conclude.
Read hit back in reply to Cook Morris Quinn: "We categorically deny that our treatment of the investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation (NZFF) has been different to our treatment of the investigation into Labour Party donations or that it has been motivated by bias," she said.
"The assumptions upon which you proceed in this regard are baseless. We note that the NZFF investigation was announced on 18 February 2020 and it was not until 21 April 2020 that a statement was made regarding the timeframe for the completion of the investigation.
"We will be making decisions about the New Zealand First Foundation matter in accordance with our usual processes."
Serious Fraud probe findings released: Two people charged
Two people are facing charges after a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the NZ First Foundation.
The pair have been charged with obtaining by deception. The charges were filed on September 23.
"The defendants have interim name suppression and so cannot be named or identified at this time," the SFO said in a statement.
"We note, however, that neither defendant is a minister, sitting MP, or candidate in the upcoming election (or a member of their staff), or a current member of the New Zealand First party."
NZ First leader Winston Peters says all MPs and ministers, candidates and party employees were cleared of wrongdoing: "No party member has been implicated or charged by the SFO," he told reporters.
The SFO charges were now a matter of sub judice and Peters said he couldn't answer whether the two people facing charges were ever party members.
He wouldn't say if he knew the two people who have been charged.
He said the timing of the decision to lay charges against two defendants of the NZ First Foundation was "an appalling intrusion" and a "James Comey level error of judgment".
"The SFO cannot justify the timing of its decision."
It was one day before overseas voting started and a few days before advanced voting started, he said.
The distinction that the party was "entirely separate" from the foundation would be lost on some, he said.