Auckland has named the three high-profile defendants in a case involving donations to political parties, allegedly obscured through the purchase of art at auction.
A suppression of three of the defendants’ identities was lifted in late February and revealed the names of the prominent businessman Yikun Zhang (a recipient of New Zealand’s Order of Merit) alongside the brothers and businessmen, Shijia (Colin) and Hengjia (Joe) Zheng. The identities of three further individuals who are also charged remain under wraps.
The charges are a result of an investigation by New Zealand’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO). At the heart of the claims are five paintings bought by Zhang for a combined $60,000 in a high-profile auction (with a guest list that included Prime Minister Jacinda Adern) held by the country’s Labour Party in late 2017. Zhang also bought an antique Chinese Imperial robe for $100,000, which he later donated to a museum in his former hometown in the Guangdong province of China.
The group is charged with counts of “obtaining by deception” and for using a series of names and intermediary accounts throughout the transaction to conceal or obscure the amount and identity of actual donors—information that is meant to be declared in full detail within a party’s annual returns.
In a statement, a representative for Zhang says, “these entirely innocent actions have seen [him] caught up in a misguided prosecution” and confirms that he “vigorously” denies all charges. He also stresses that the paintings, which include a work by the Tauranga-based artist Graham Crow and the graphic designer Mischelle O’Donnell, remain hung in his home.
Representatives from the Zheng brothers and SFO did not respond to our requests for comment. The Labour Party has been quoted in local reports as saying that it “complied with the law”.
The three defendants are also due to come to trial for another set of charges (which all deny), concerning donations made to the National Party, which they face alongside the former MP Jami-Lee Ross. It is reported that both strands of the investigation will be trialled together in July.
Both cases are being widely watched due to the increased scrutiny of how political parties are accepting payments and claiming expenses, following a string of similar cases led by the SFO. The case also comes as pressure on cultural organisations to assess the origins of their donations increases internationally.