Mayor urged Jami-Lee Ross to back off

A court hears exasperated text messages from a New Zealand mayor traveling in China with a man at the center of a political scandal

A Kiwi mayor who had been on an all-expenses-paid trip to southern China with a businessman caught in former MP Jami-Lee Ross’ allegations about a $100,000 donation to National repeatedly texted the MP asking him to back off.

Southland District Mayor Gary Tong gave evidence at the High Court trial of the businessman, Ross and five others on Monday, saying how he was suddenly inundated by media inquiries while traveling in China when Ross made the claims in October 2018.

Ross had claimed the businessman, Yikun Zhang, had donated the $100,000 to National but the sum had been split into seven smaller donations to avoid public disclosure rules.

Tong told the court he confronted Zhang in a car on a roadside between two stops on his journey to explore a sister city relationship for Southland with Shantou, which had been arranged by Zhang.

“I put it to Mr Zhang through an interpreter and said ‘if it’s true, I would be on the first plane home’.

“Quite strongly, he said he wasn’t involved in such things.”

Tong decided to stay on the trip and then texted Jami-Lee Ross three times over the next three days urging him to tell the media Zhang was not at fault.

“As you are aware,” he texted, “I’m in South China attempting to establish relationships, however the Jami-Lee Ross -National -Yikun Zhang [claim] has affected it.

“I’m supporting them 100 percent through media to the best of my ability, as I have utmost confidence and respect for him.”

Receiving no response from Ross, the next day Tong texted: “I again ask that you consider redirecting media to the truth around the donation. Not from Mr Zhang personally. This is getting out of hand in respect of being associated to Zhang, a man I have the greatest respect for. Happy to discuss.”

With no further response, the mayor tried again: “I’m over all of this. In the middle of some shitfight. Show some integrity and tell where the donation came from, not from Zhang as you know. You say you accepted it. So tell people it came from the association or wherever, not Zhang. I have reporters from the New York Times calling me now. As I say, I’m over it.”

Tong told Crown lawyer Paul Wicks QC his reference to ‘the association’ referred to the Chinese cultural and business group in New Zealand, the Chao Shan General Association, which had been founded by Zhang. He said he had overheard discussion on the tour bus about the association’s possible role. “That would have been on the second or third day when the media was going really hot.”

He had decided to stay on the tour and had been reinforced in that view when he heard Zhang’s family “were being pestered by media, including the young son”.

Tong on his first trip to China in 2017

Tong said the trip to China was his second with Zhang, trying to develop links to Shantou for Southland. All costs were paid, although on the first, in 2017, Tong and his partner Sharon paid for some personal items.

He said he did not discuss with Zhang or his associates about texting Ross to change his allegations.

Wicks: “Did you have any other conversations with Yikun Zhang or Colin Zheng [another of the defendants in the case, who was on the trip] about donation allegations?”

Tong: “No.”

Being from Southland, Tong had also been asked about Ross’ affair with the local MP and National colleague Sarah Dowie, but he told Ross in one of the texts that he had replied only that people’s personal lives were for them alone.

The mayor said he had first met Zhang at a business event in Invercargill and had since become a close friend.

After returning from the China trip, and later learning Zhang was being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over the donation allegations, Tong made contact with his friend.

“I certainly did,” he told Wicks. “I sent a text saying ‘wishing you well’ and ‘thinking of them’. Shortly after that I was contacted by the SFO and have had no further contact until today.”

To lawyer Ron Mansfield QC, for Ross, Tong said the Southland District Council had decided to seek the sister city connection with Shantou and “I was the one promoted to do the initial conversations”.

He agreed the trips were paid for by “some other entity” and when Shantou officials came to Southland “we reciprocated”.

During the trips to China it was clear Zhang was known and respected by those the group met, who included senior officials, and Tong got to see things that would not have been known to “Joe Bloggs”.

Asked if Zhang had been the recognized leader on the trip, Tong said: “Without swelling my head, I think I was the leader on the second trip. They were wanting to hear from me.”

Negotiations between Southland and Shantou on a re-named international relations agreement had continued directly between the parties but no deal had yet been reached. He received a letter from the leader of the Chinese city about eight weeks ago still keen to progress matters.

However, at this end, problems with establishing the national polytechnic organization Te Pukenga had delayed the commitments Southland could make about its Southland Institute of Technology.

Zhang, Ross, Colin Zheng and his twin brother Joe Zheng are on trial for obtaining by deception in relation to two $100,000 donations to National, in 2017 and 2018, that the Crown alleges were broken up to small amounts and through other “sham donors” to hide their origin and conceal identities from the public.

Those four defendants and three others with name suppression also face similar charges over a net $35,000 donation to Labor from an art auction in 2017. All defendants have pleaded not guilty in the trial before Justice Ian Gault which is in its fourth week.

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