The New Zealand First Foundation will be looked at by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), as the Electoral Commission believes donations made to the foundation should’ve been treated as party donations.
The Electoral Commission said based on the information available to it, it has formed the view the donations “were not properly transmitted to the [New Zealand First] Party and not disclosed as required by the Electoral Act 1993”.
New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, responded saying the party will review its “arrangements” for party donations.
“New Zealand First’s arrangements for collecting donations has been the same as other political parties. The New Zealand First Foundation is built upon the trust deed of the National Party,” Peters said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wouldn’t pass judgement on her coalition partner, and said she'd leave the SFO to get on with its investigation.
Ardern said she spoke to Peters on Monday, but didn’t reprimand him.
The Electoral Commission said it didn't have the investigative powers to decide whether the foundation’s “failure to transmit” and its “non-disclosure” meant offences had been committed.
“These matters have therefore been referred to the New Zealand Police, which have the necessary powers to investigate the knowledge and intent of those involved in fundraising, donating, and reporting donations," it said.
The Police responded saying it has assessed the file and will be referring the matter to the SFO.
The investigation follows Stuff in November reporting it had seen New Zealand First Foundation records that suggest breaches of the Electoral Act.
It claimed almost half a million dollars in donations had been “hidden” in the “slush fund” controlled by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters’ lawyer and New Zealand First’s judicial officer, Brian Henry, and New Zealand First’s founding president and political lobbyist, Doug Woolerton.
Peters said the Commission’s statement “further underscores the importance of reviewing the donations regime”.
“I had already advised the party last week to take this course of action and itself refer the matter to the police, which the party had agreed to do.
“This does not imply any impropriety but is intended to ensure the party, as with all parties, have robust arrangements.
“If the review deems it necessary for New Zealand First and all parties to develop new arrangements to receive donations the party will consult with the Electoral Commission.
“This party is built on the support of loyal supporters and donors and believes it has followed the law implicitly.
“I am advised that in all its dealings the Foundation sought outside legal advice and does not believe it has breached the Electoral Act.”
Peters on Sunday issued a statement saying: “This morning I have recommended to the New Zealand First Party President that she begin preparing a complaint to the police over the massive breach of New Zealand First’s party information.
“Ongoing media stories using as their source stolen information are designed to skew an even political playing field.
“New Zealand First has so far been sensitive to the circumstances surrounding the theft of party information but can no longer tolerate the mendacious attacks against the party and its supporters.”
Asked whether she “trusted” Peters, Ardern didn't give a yes/no answer, but said: “I have an excellent working relationship with him. We have proven that we can deliver a strong stable government and ultimately the issues that have been raised today are not a matter for any of us to simply give a word. It’s actually for these things to be properly investigated, and that is what is happening.”
Ardern also said the issue underlined the need for New Zealand's electoral law to be reviewed, including by an independent authority. Yet she said this was unlikely to happen before the September election.