Michael Wood, Labor MP and Cabinet Minister. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Government Minister Michael Wood took the witness stand in Auckland High Court today to recount conducting an informal inquiry into a substantial Labor Party donation five years ago which the Serious Fraud Office later alleges as fraudulent.

Although Wood spoke with three people who would later be charged with crimes, his own investigations did not make much progress, he suggested.

‘I assured him it wasn’t about accusing him of anything – it was just about making sure we had accurate information,’ the MP said of his brief appeal of 2020 with an accused who now has name deletion.

“He gave a general assurance that everything was above board and kosher, but I couldn’t get any specific information.”

The Mt Roskill-based politician, who has risen through the party ranks since being elected in 2016, traveled to Auckland for testimony at the businessman and New Order of Merit member’s trial. Yikun Zhang, former National MP Jami-Lee Ross and five others with business and political ties.

Four of the seven defendants in the political donations trial are Yikun Zhang (left), Shijia (Colin) Zheng, Hengjia (Joe) Zheng and Jami-Lee Ross.  Photo / Jason Oxenham
Four of the seven defendants in the political donations trial are Yikun Zhang (left), Shijia (Colin) Zheng, Hengjia (Joe) Zheng and Jami-Lee Ross. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The seven defendants – including business brothers Shijia (Colin) Zheng and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng, as well as the three whose names have been removed – are charged with helping to illegally conceal large donations from Zhang at National or Labor the previous year. in his honor of the Order of Merit, awarded in 2018 for services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community.

Each defendant pleaded not guilty last week at the start of the lengthy non-jury trial before Judge Ian Gault.

The Serious Fraud Office lawsuits focus on two donations to National – $100,000 in 2017 and $100,050 in 2018 – and an allegedly “fictitious” auction at a 2017 Labor fundraiser in which Zhang allegedly bought five paintings for $60,000.

Donations totaling more than $15,000 in a year must be reported to the Election Commission in accordance with the Elections Act. Prosecutors allege Zhang split the donations into smaller amounts and recruited people to make the donations in their own name so he could circumvent the requirement.

The scheme was intended to deceive the Electoral Commission, the public and the secretariats of both parties, according to the Serious Fraud Office.

Wood said he received a call in February 2020 from Labor campaign manager Hayden Munro asking him to look into the art auction fundraiser three years earlier, which Wood had not attended himself . National donations had already surfaced, resulting in intense public and media interest, and Labor officials were anticipating questions from the media about whether the same people were involved in donations to their party, Wood recalled.

“[Munro] was satisfied that the party had fulfilled its terms or reporting obligations,” Wood said, explaining that Munro had asked him to see if he could “elucidate any information on the [auction] items” and “ensure that the people who bought them had the items”.

Yikun Zhang, pictured with former Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy when he received his MNZM for his services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community.  Photo / Provided
Yikun Zhang, pictured with former Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy when he received his MNZM for his services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community. Photo / Provided

“…I think there may have been a suggestion that there was an absence of detail that we just wanted to get.”

Of the three people he spoke to who would later become defendants, Wood said he had a general recollection of all conversations with similar results — assurances but no specific details.

Wood has also known Zhang through multiple public events over the years. He described the defendant as the “driving force” of the Chao Shan General Association, which focused on the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand. In 2015, Wood wrote a letter of support for the group hosting a major convention in New Zealand.

The deputy was present at another fundraiser in September 2017 in which Zhang spent $100,000 on an antique imperial robe and two other works of art, although Wood called his involvement in today’s event today as a “wide observer” with a group of other Labor officials. .

Fundraisers in which art is auctioned off are commonplace, he testified in cross-examination. MPs periodically receive advice, via emails and workshops, on adhering to campaign finance rules and good practice, he also acknowledged.

Wood took on cabinet roles as Minister for Transport and Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety after the 2020 election. In June, PM Jacinda Ardern also gave him the immigration portfolio.

Another Cabinet minister, Andrew Little, is due to testify tomorrow, along with Andrew Campbell, who has served as the Prime Minister’s chief press secretary since 2018.