New Zealand’s conservative opposition party was in turmoil yesterday after one of its own lawmakers accused leader Simon Bridges of corruption for hiding a donation from a wealthy Chinese businessman.
Jami-Lee Ross made the allegation and then said he was resigning from Parliament. Ross said he regretted his own complicity in a scheme to split the party donation into a series of smaller amounts to avoid it being publicly disclosed.
Ross said he planned to provide evidence to police and to release a phone conversation with Bridges that he’d secretly taped.
“I believe Simon Bridges is a corrupt politician,” Ross said.
Soon after, Bridges said the National Party caucus had unanimously voted to expel Ross.
“We are talking about a guy who’s lying, who’s leaking, who’s lashing out,” Bridges said.
Bridges said the accusations were baseless, that he’d done nothing wrong, and that he welcomed a police investigation.
But Bridges did not answer specific questions about the alleged scheme to hide the 100,000 New Zealand dollar (USD66,000) donation from Zhang Yikun, saying it was now a matter for the police.
The allegations follow a series of destabilizing events within the party that began in August, when somebody leaked a report of Bridges’ expenses to a television station.
An investigation into the leak was launched, with Ross denying he was the leaker.
Ross then announced in early October that he was taking leave for unspecified health reasons, which Bridges characterized as “embarrassing.” Bridges later said he regretted using the term.
Bridges announced Monday that the investigation pointed to Ross being the leaker and that the caucus would decide his fate yesterday.
But Ross, who said he drove nine hours from his home in Auckland to the Parliament in Wellington, pre-empted that announcement with one of his own.
He said he’d suffered a mental breakdown but was healthy now. He said it came after Bridges told him that four women had complained that Ross had harassed them and that he should resign from his portfolios.
Ross said he didn’t harass anybody.
“No one should have their boss tell the nation that their mental health and their medical needs are embarrassing,” he added.
Ross’s resignation will mean a fresh election will be held in his district. Ross has said he will contest that election as an independent candidate.
Zhang, the Chinese businessman whose donation came into question was awarded an “Order of Merit” from the New Zealand government in June for “services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community.”
An autobiographical account he wrote on an overseas Chinese website says his grandfather was a Thai businessman who returned to China. He was born into a farmer’s family and spent time in the army before migrating to New Zealand.
Zhang started out running restaurants but company registries show he later branched out into residential property and construction. Nick Perry, Wellington, AP