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Judge dismisses urgent appeal by TVNZ, other media on NZ First Foundation case name supression

Secrecy continues in the case of the pair charged after the Serious Fraud Office's (SFO) investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation and its handling of donations after the media's urgent appeal was dismissed.

Auckland High Court (file). Source: istock.com

By Anneke Smith of rnz.co.nz

RNZ, Stuff, NZME and TVNZ have - once again - argued the public have a right to know who the two defendants are ahead of the election polls closing this Saturday evening.

The pair are accused of obtaining more than $700,000 between 2015 and 2020, which they then used to pay expenses of the New Zealand First party.

Last week RNZ, Stuff, NZME and TVNZ challenged an interim name suppression order sought in a series of court hearings the media was not present for that currently protect their identities.

The media argued there was compelling public interest in knowing who the accused are before the election is over and any secrecy around the identities impinged on the public's right to be fully informed before they cast their vote.

The district court ruled against the media; finding one of the defendants had proved an arguable case for name suppression and granting both defendants interim name suppression until their first appearance on 29 October.

An appeal of this decision brought by the media was heard by Justice Jagose in the High Court at Auckland this afternoon.

Media lawyer Robert Stewart said the district court had erred in three ways; finding the grounds of extreme hardship had been satisfied, exercising discretion to grant interim name suppression and both taking into account irrelevant considerations and failing to take into account relevant considerations.

He told the court the public should not be left to speculate who the pair were and what connections, if any, they had to the New Zealand First party; they should just be told.

Stewart also said the roughly 1.2 million advanced votes cast did not mean knowing the identities of the accused was any less important to those who had not already voted.

A lawyer for one of the defendants asked Justice Jagose to dismiss the appeal; submitting the identities of the accused did not better inform voters.

After hearing the submissions, Justice Jagose said he found the decision to grant interim name suppression in the case was the right one and dismissed the appeal.

Last month, the New Zealand First party tried to gag the SFO ahead of its statement confirming charges had been laid.

It took the watchdog agency to the High Court last month seeking to suppress the announcement of the charges and the existence of the court action until after a new government had been formed.

The High Court ruled against the party; finding there was "significant public interest in the New Zealand voting public being informed during an election campaign about criminal charges of serious fraud against people or organisations related to political parties".

Since then, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has said the party has been completely exonerated by the investigation and stressed the foundation and party are entirely separate entities.

Charging documents state the two defendants used more than $700,000 in a "fraudulent device, trick or stratagem" to pay expenses for the New Zealand First party.

They say the pair used deception to obtain control over $677,885 deposited into the bank account of the New Zealand First Foundation account between 21 April 2017 and 14 February 2020.

The defendants are also charged with using $68,996 deposited into a bank account of a company run by one of the defendants between 31 October 2015 and 20 October 2017.

The defendants will have their first official court appearance in the North Shore District Court on 29 October.