NZ First Foundation case: Media companies seek to appeal High Court suppression ruling

A group of the country’s news media companies have sought an urgent Court of Appeal challenge after a judge ruled the New Zealand First Foundation accused will keep their names suppressed until after the election.

The High Court yesterday dismissed an appeal by an assortment of media firms attempting to lift a suppression order for two people charged by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over allegations of improper political donations.

Neither are of the accused are a minister, sitting MP, candidate in the upcoming election or a member of their staff, or a current member of the New Zealand First political party.

Today, the media group’s lawyer Robert Stewart, who is representing Herald publisher NZME, Stuff, RNZ, TVNZ and MediaWorks, sought leave from the Court of Appeal for a second urgent hearing before Saturday.

Stewart yesterday argued before Justice Pheroze Jagose that constituents still to vote must be informed who the two criminally charged are before entering the ballot box.

“The public shouldn’t have to speculate or guess, they should just be told,” he said.

However, in a minute this morning, Court of Appeal president Justice Stephen Kos seemingly indicated the media’s chances of success were small.

He had read Justice Jagose’s decision and was “not satisfied a case exists for final hearing within so contracted a timetable, or that such contraction of time would be consistent with justice to the primary parties”.

A teleconference with the lawyers and the Court of Appeal is due to be held this afternoon to discuss the case.

The two accused have not been named after a series of hastily arranged court hearings and interim suppression orders were made after the SFO laid charges on September 23.

The court hearings, which were held in the absence of journalists, included NZ First’s failed attempt to stop the charges becoming public until after a government is formed.

The suppression order was first challenged by the media in the Waitakere District Court last week.

Judge Peter Winter decided to keep the order in place and said publication of the accused may “unfairly unsettle those who already cast their vote as much as it informs those who have not”.

Charging documents allege the pair deposited a total of $746,881 between September 30, 2015 and February 14 this year with “intent to deceive the donors of the monies, the party secretary of the New Zealand First Party and/or the Electoral Commission”.

“The defendants adopted a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem, whereby party donations for the party were paid into the bank accounts of [suppressed] and the New Zealand First Foundation and not notified to the party secretary, or declared by the party secretary to the Electoral Commission,” the papers read.

“Those undeclared funds thereby became available to [suppressed]/New Zealand First Foundation to use as the defendants saw fit, and were used to pay expenses of the party and to develop a fundraising database for the benefit of the party and [suppressed].”

The accused duo are due to appear in the North Shore District Court to face the charges on October 29.

NZ First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has distanced himself from the foundation – reported to have bankrolled the political party – and has denied any wrongdoing after it first came under scrutiny last November.

After charges were laid, Peters claimed he and the party were “exonerated”.

At a press conference he was also highly critical of the SFO and its decision to lay charges so close to the election.

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