Jami-Lee Ross was the Botany Bagman. He was a constant figure at events which saw the National Party suck up big money from the Chinese immigrant community.

It was that same money the Botany MP is attempting to use to suffocate the political career of National Party leader Simon Bridges.

This extraordinary week in politics has seen Ross quit before he got fired, allege corruption against his former leader then produce secretly recorded conversations which would have been excruciating for Bridges.

"He has done his worst", said Bridges of Ross.

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It seems a hopeful rather than definite statement.

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It's impossible to know exactly when Ross took a step down what he sees as a righteous - and what Bridges calls treacherous - path.

It's also difficult to know where it ends. Ross' actions have shown clear signs of strategy.

If there is an end game, it won't come this week. And if it won't come this week, the political shocks for National may just keep coming.

National Party leader Simon Bridges defending himself against claims from former MP Jami-Lee Ross. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Party leader Simon Bridges defending himself against claims from former MP Jami-Lee Ross. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Bridges admitted as much. "I think he has been recording me, and potentially many other members of Parliament, for a very long time."

Today Bridges was forced to apologise for calling one MP, Maureen Pugh, "f***ing useless". He also had to try to justify comments which appeared to suggest candidacy places would be given to communities providing big cash donations.

It is such money which helped build National's might.

Follow the money

The National Party machine is the envy of other parties. From its crushing election defeat in 2002, when many believed it a spent force, it was rebuilt brutally, carefully and methodically.

Structures were designed, the board empowered to build longevity, emphasis was placed on calculated and deliberate fundraising. Risk was not tolerated. The party was being built to last a thousand years.

Part of the genius was the courting of the new Chinese-New Zealand community.

Wealthy migrants seeking firm footing and influence in their new nation was of such significance it became the subject of a report last year from Canterbury University academic Anne-Marie Brady.

Her concern was the danger to our democracy, drawing links between support for political parties and the Chinese government.

But her report also hinted at the scale of money provided from the Chinese community - far more than has openly appeared in any of the parties' published electoral returns.

The lure of the money drew many parties but none were said to be as successful as National.

And since at least 2013, perhaps because of the high Chinese migrant population in his Botany electorate, Ross was a constant figure at events where fundraising took place.

Even amid the fallout of this week, Ross was described by Bridges as having an "expertise" in electoral law and fundraising assistance.

MP Jami-Lee Ross, former Prime Minister Sir John Key and controversial Chinese businessman Donghua Liu. Photo / Supplied
MP Jami-Lee Ross, former Prime Minister Sir John Key and controversial Chinese businessman Donghua Liu. Photo / Supplied

It was Ross in 2013 with former Prime Minister Sir John Key alongside controversial businessman Donghua Liu. All beamed for the camera during a private dinner at Liu's $5 million Remuera home. The same month, Liu donated $25,000 to Ross' electorate account, later returned.

It was Ross who became a familiar face at meetings of the Chao Shan General Association, a Chinese cultural promotion association set up by millionaire businessman Zhang Yikun.

Again and again, Ross appears in photographs through 2016, 2017 and 2018 right up to the point where he introduces Bridges to Zhang at dinner on May 14.

They met at Zhang's Remuera home. Conversation would have been difficult - Zhang doesn't speak English - but during the course of the evening they were told how their hosts wanted to see more Chinese candidates.

One of those was Colin Zheng, Zhang's construction manager, who was also at the dinner.

Zhang and Zheng were there to meet Bridges a week later when Paul Goldsmith held a fundraiser.

It was there Zhang talked to Bridges about a $100,000 donation.

Bridges invited the men to Tauranga. "I promised them that we would have dinner at my place, that you should come," he later told Ross in the secretly recorded conversation released today.

"I mean, we might as well make a bit of fun of it.

"The only thing that would be good is if they brought the wine because they've got better wine."

Bridges tentatively suggested the dinner for last month. It is unknown if it has gone ahead.

On June 25, Ross rang Bridges about the donation.

It is this conversation he recorded, and which he said this week would support his claims against Bridges.

While politically difficult - and embarrassing - it does not do so.

In fact, when taken with Ross' comments outside Wellington Central Police station on Wednesday, it appears to offer an explanation consistent with the law.

Ross came out from being interviewed by police and said the $100,000 which came through Zhang was broken into seven donations of $14,000 and one donation of $2000.

Millionaire Zhang Yikun with National deputy leader Paula Bennett after a 2017 function. Photo / Supplied
Millionaire Zhang Yikun with National deputy leader Paula Bennett after a 2017 function. Photo / Supplied

The donations were given to National along with a list of names of donors.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis said the trigger limit at which donations to the party must be reported is $15,000. Beneath that amount, and above $2500, only the political party need record the names to ensure multiple small donations don't hit the trigger limit.

By Ross' description of events, the law was followed.

So what else has Ross got?

The first leak of the weak

The week began with a MediaWorks leak about Simon Bridges' electoral expenses.

Broadcaster Duncan Garner detailed how Bridges had filed and then pulled election returns which showed a $10,000 donation from the "Cathedral Club" and $14,000 from Cubro Ltd.

The returns had been submitted again without the donations listed.

Bridges explained the donations had been on his personal donation returns by mistake and were then correctly submitted to the party, Again, because they were under the $15,000 limit, the party needs only to record the name of the donor but not declare it publicly.

"They want you gone," Garner told Bridges. It later turned out "they" was only "Ross", who admitted being aware of the leak. It is believed the so-called political strategist Simon Lusk, from whom Ross has been taking advice, was involved in providing the information.

The Cubro Ltd donation was easily understood. The money came from an Exclusive Brethren-linked business from Tauranga.

But the other was a mystery, until uncovered by the NZ Herald.

The original donation documents supplied to the Electoral Commission showed the "Cathedral Club" was registered to an address on Upland Rd in Remuera.

The Cathedral Club, including Jami-Lee Ross, Simon Bridges (both second in from left) and Aaron Bhatnagar (far right, bottom row) who made the 2017 donation. Photo / Supplied
The Cathedral Club, including Jami-Lee Ross, Simon Bridges (both second in from left) and Aaron Bhatnagar (far right, bottom row) who made the 2017 donation. Photo / Supplied

A property search of that address revealed Aaron Bhatnagar was living in, and owned, the house at the time the donation was made.

When approached, Bhatnagar confirmed he was behind the donation. He had used the name, he said, as it was a social club he helped organise between 2001 and around 2008.

It saw those interested in politics meet at the Auckland Club, eat dinner and listen to interesting speakers.

So why is this a problem?

Ross said on Tuesday: "The Electoral Act clearly states knowingly filing a false return is a corrupt practice. I know Simon filed a false return because Todd McClay and I spotted that false name in his return in January and suggested it needed to be tidied up.

"Simon Bridges knows exactly what Cathedral Club is. It was a name he used to hide a donation from a close friend of his. He claimed it was a clerical error. I call BS on that."

The Herald further uncovered evidence showing Bridges knew what the Cathedral Club had been - because he attended dinners with Ross back in 2006. A photograph from one dinner shows Bhatnagar, Bridges and Ross together.

But if the donation was meant to be to the National Party - and not to Bridges personally - then what of it?

Ross says mistake or not, Bridges signed it and would have done so knowing the name would have meant Bhatnagar.

Geddis? Yes but no, says the law professor.

There is a possible argument of a "technical" breach but it would be extremely unlikely to hold water.

The Electoral Commission has an unofficial grace period, he believes, during which those who submit returns are afforded an opportunity to get the information right.

National Party leader Simon Bridges with millionaire Zhang Yikun. Photo / Supplied
National Party leader Simon Bridges with millionaire Zhang Yikun. Photo / Supplied

It's not an organisation which wants to catch people. It's an organisation which wants people to follow the rules.

Bridges explained on Wednesday that internal record keeping shows the donation was always intended to go to the party, and not on his personal return.

If that's the case, it's a "clerical error", as Bridges said, with a "technical" hitch, to use Geddis' word.

So what else has Ross got?

Simon Lusk emerges

The complaint by Jami-Lee Ross to police on Wednesday ensures the story, and claims against Bridges, will persist through to the byelection for Botany.

For Bridges, it will be a continued agony.

He can be sure there will be more claims. There may well be more recordings.

For those who watched it unfold, it was clear that Ross was still receiving advice from his old mentor, Simon Lusk.

The pacing of the allegations, the timing of the press conferences - it smacked of a carefully planned strategy intended to maximise and prolong coverage.

It was the week in which the report was due identifying the person who leaked Bridges travel expenses.

That report was going to identify Ross. He knew it, and had been told as much.

So he went first. There was the leak to Garner, which had Bridges on the back foot from early Monday.

Then, as the report was about to be released, Ross got in ahead of his leader, tweeting a defence and an attack on Bridges.

Again, Bridges was on defence but even then it was hard to imagine the extent to which Ross was planning to go.

As National's caucus met on Tuesday, Ross called a press conference and gazumped its decision and fired accusations at Bridges.

On Wednesday, a senior National MP sighed with resignation at the prospect of Parliament sitting at 2pm. It meant all senior Opposition MPs would be tied up - and sure enough, there was Ross giving a press conference and dropping a recording.

It is this strategy which has afforded Ross so much prominence this week.

It was also this which suggested to those who know Lusk there were dark, spinning arts being practised.

National MP Todd McClay, blogger Cameron Slater, rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross and blogger David Farrar from around 2011. Photo / Supplied
National MP Todd McClay, blogger Cameron Slater, rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross and blogger David Farrar from around 2011. Photo / Supplied

Lusk is often cast as a Machiavellian political puppet master. He did not respond to a request for comment today.

Based in Hawke's Bay, he sells himself on his website as someone who has an expertise in campaigning.

But he also offers targeted political hit jobs, offering to "remove politicians".

His website reads: "In a world where some small-minded politician can cost businesses millions it is often more effective to remove the politician at election time than it is to fight with them.

"Simon has run many campaigns to resolve issues for businesses when politicians or NGOs have unreasonably cost them vast amounts of money."

Lusk was known to have been involved in Ross' first campaign in 2011. He claimed in Dirty Politics to Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater that he had helped get Ross selected for the safe National seat.

At the time, Lusk and Slater's ambition was to take over National's candidate training.

Their work with those candidates who had hired their services caused such concern in National it was discussed at board meetings. Lusk and Slater were ostracised and attempts were made to improve candidate training.

And yet some MPs kept contact - even though Lusk emerged as a key player with blogger Cameron Slater in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics.

Ross admitted on Wednesday he had been in discussions with Lusk. Bridges, this evening, said the pair had been meeting secretly for months.

When Lusk learned after his 2011 success that the party hierarchy wanted to distance itself - and every National MP - he said it didn't worry him.

"It's a long game and I'm going to outlast others," said Lusk.

And that has led to speculation as to Ross' true objective and whether his departure was the path to the creation of a new political party.

The right of New Zealand politics have been talking of the need for such a party for years. National needs a coalition partner, there's believed to be an appetite for choice and there are no obvious contenders.

Millionaire Zhang Yikun sought contact with politicians across the spectrum, including Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. Photo / Supplied
Millionaire Zhang Yikun sought contact with politicians across the spectrum, including Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. Photo / Supplied

There's some precedence. Winston Peters quit the National Party in 1991 and launched New Zealand First just before the 1993 election. Michael Laws flirted with launching a centrist political party for years before quitting National and Parliament in 1996, going on to manage NZ First's phenomenally successful election campaign that year.

Ross' falling out with Bridges meant his time with National was finished. When Ross spoke on Tuesday, he questioned what Botany voters wanted - a backbench National MP who achieved nothing, or him?

An independent MP with no party infrastructure is capable of achieving little more.

If Ross was successful in winning the Botany seat, it would give a springboard to try to build support and launch a party to contest the 2020 election.

Funding would be required - Lusk is known for an ability to identify donors. Capable candidates would also be necessary, which could offer opportunities for ambitious aspirants placed low on current party lists.

Has Lusk devised a long game for Ross?