By Guyon Espiner of RNZ
The Serious Fraud Office says it is on track to make a call before this year's election on whether to lay charges in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation, which has been bankrolling the New Zealand First Party.
In a rare statement today, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which normally gives little away, laid out its timetable for the investigation, which has faced challenges because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
"The SFO's pre-lockdown timetable for the investigation in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation would see us completing the investigation before the September election date," director Julie Read said.
"At this stage, we are progressing the investigation under the current lockdown restrictions and are still on track to complete it within that timeframe."
However, the logistical challenges of the lockdown meant the SFO could not set an exact date.
"Our actual completion date will be dependent upon our ability to conduct certain interviews as well as other tasks which can only be completed at lower alert levels and the cooperation of those who hold information relevant to our investigation."
The SFO offices had been closed during the pandemic and the entirety of its workforce had been working from home rather than conducting face-to-face meetings.
Prime Minister Jacinda Adern has set the election date for September 19, although New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has been pushing for a November 21 date, because of the difficulties of holding an election during a pandemic.
In February the Electoral Commission said it believed the New Zealand First Foundation had received donations which should have been treated as party donations and had referred the matter to police to investigate.
The police referred it on to the Serious Fraud Office on February 11 and a week later the SFO launched a formal investigation.
The investigation followed revelations by RNZ and Stuff that the foundation received donations from entities connected with some of the country's wealthiest people in the business, fisheries and horse racing worlds.
None of the donations were declared in the party's electoral returns and the only disclosed source of money to New Zealand First since 2017 was a loan made by the foundation.
Documents seen by RNZ show that between April 2017 and August 2019 nearly $500,000 was deposited into the foundation bank account, including payments from some of New Zealand's wealthiest business people or entities connected to them.
In many cases the donations were for amounts just under the $15,000.01 level at which the donors' names would normally be made public.
Over that period the foundation spent more than $425,000 paying bills for the New Zealand First party, including advertising expenses, fees for political consultants, rent, establishing a party HQ and running its website.
Peters distanced himself from the foundation when it first came under scrutiny in November last year.
Asked by reporters if he could explain what role the NZ First Foundation played, he responded: "I look after the political wing of the NZ First party. That's an administrative matter and you've got to ask somebody else."
But documents leaked to RNZ show Peters was present at a March 2017 board of directors' meeting where the New Zealand First board agreed to the concept of establishing the foundation.
The documents contain a recommendation that Peters "select an appropriate legal adviser" to develop the foundation.
Peters' lawyer Brian Henry, who is also the judicial officer for New Zealand First, then became a foundation trustee, along with Doug Woolerton, a former New Zealand First MP who now runs a lobbying firm.
Despite Peters claiming a separation between the foundation and the party, RNZ has seen documents showing dozens of party bills were paid by the foundation and that invoices were often addressed to him and his MPs.
Peters has consistently maintained that neither he nor the party has done anything wrong.
When the SFO first decided to look into the case, on February 11, Peters challenged it to find the evidence and proof to make its case.
"They would have no such proof and no such evidence and we've got a legal opinion to back up what we have said."
The SFO has been looking at multiple cases involving political donations, including probes into a National Party donation and money given to campaigns by the mayors of Christchurch and Auckland.