David Cunliffe advocated for Donghua Liu

ANDREA VANCE AND MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 19:45 18/06/2014
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff.co.nz

Labour leader David Cunliffe insists he did not meet political donor Donghua Liu - but agreed to write a ''low level'' request after his staff were approached by an immigration agent.

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David Cunliffe on the 2014 campaign trail.
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Labour was tonight scrambling to establish just how much businessman Donghua Liu gave the party - and whether he was a constituent of leader David Cunliffe.

Cunliffe was left red-faced today after a letter emerged showing he had written to Immigration on behalf of Liu's residency application in April 2003.

In the letter Cunliffe said he had been ''approached by my constituent.'' However, he clarified today the letter was written by his electorate staff, after they were approached by Liu's immigration agent.

Cunliffe says he did not lie - but simply didn't know about the letter when questioned by reporters earlier this week.

Tonight he admitted the party is trying to establish whether Liu lived in his New Lynn electorate.

"We are double-checking that, that's the advice I received,'' he said.

He explained the party doesn't keep paper record going back that far for ''privacy reasons.''

"This is 11 years ago. I've done over 10,000 cases and constituency inquiries,'' he said. ''They don't all result in letters.'' 

Labour also can't confirm whether Liu paid $15,000 at auction for a book signed by Helen Clark. Speculation has reached fever-pitch about other possible gifts from the property developer. Liu also has fund raising links to National, which have been heavily criticised by Labour.

Mike Smith, who was Labour party secretary at the time, said he had been asked to check his memory and his records to see if Liu had made a donation to the party.

A lot of donations were made at the time through auctions organised by the Chinese community.

'It's entirely possible (Liu) bought items at auctions or whatever, and it could have been across a whole range of them,'" Smith said.

Pinning them down would not be easy, he said, and he was pleased when the electoral finance Act came in because it was previously difficult to administer donations.

"We didn't have a lot of control over them. The rules were less clear then than now."

He remembered getting advice on how to treat auction items in terms of what part of the price was the sale of goods and what was the donation component.

Twice this week Cunliffe denied having met or lobbied on behalf of Liu, who is awaiting sentence on domestic violence charges.

Cunliffe faced reporters this afternoon after documents emerged revealing a letter from April 2003 in which he asked that Chinese-born Liu, 53, be advised how long his application would take.

Liu was granted residency by then-Labour immigration minister Damien O'Connor, against the advice of officials.

Cunliffe said he had given ''an honest answer'' to reporters and that his office could not recall the interaction.

"I did not tell a lie, I absolutely did not.''

He added: ''The advice I had was we had no records. My memory has obviously failed me.''

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The revelation is embarrassing for Cunliffe because he has criticised a series of National politicians for their dealings with Chinese-born Liu.

Cunliffe said he had talked the matter through with senior colleagues and was not worried he would be rolled as leader. He said he had the confidence of his caucus, although he had not sought assurances from all MPs.

"Those that have approached me have said that any such contrary suggestion is ridiculous. I have talked to a few of my senior colleagues in light of media speculation and I can assure you that I have the confidence of my caucus.''

Fronting up to reporters, Cunliffe was flanked by his deputy David Parker.

"I actually know that I've done nothing wrong so I feel totally relaxed about this,' Cunliffe said.

''MPs do this all the time in respect of immigration cases,'' he said.

He did not regret his attacks on National ministers, including Maurice Williamson who was forced to resign.

''Mr Williamson got involved in a police operation matter which is something I have not done.''

A former Labour party member, who did not want to be named, said he was surprised the current leadership couldn't recall Liu's presence at fundraising auctions. He said that during the former Labour administration he was ''very visible'' at both Labour and National events.

He recounted one incident in which Liu had ''aggressively'' made a bid. 

''He used to turn up at functions uninvited,'' he said. ''I'm surprised people in the Labour hierarchy don't remember him because he was a memorable chap for those reasons.''

Parker said Cunliffe still had his "full confidence".

He dismissed claims the information may have come from within Labour's own ranks.

"Obviously we would rather this not have happened, but David Cunliffe has done nothing he should be ashamed of here.

"He's told the truth throughout. over 10 years ago, his office wrote a letter that he asked when a particular application would be processed by. That he didn't recall that is not surprising."

Parker said it shouldn't knock public confidence in Labour and it's leadership.

NATIONAL: CAN PUBLIC TRUST CUNLIFFE?

Prime Minister John Key said the public would struggle to trust Cunliffe after this.

"Politics is all about trust," he said from New York.

"Mr Cunliffe has asked New Zealanders to trust him that he's had no involvement with Donghua Liu, yet this letter suggests the complete opposite and quite clearly he'll need to explain his actions."

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said Cunliffe had been "tricky" and that the emergence of the documents showed he could not be trusted.

"It looks deliberately deceptive but he'll have to account for that."

He refused to be drawn on whether the Labour leader should resign but said the revelation undermined his credibility.

"His credibility on these issues was pretty thin anyway, he set up his own personal trust and won't reveal the donors to it in the way everyone else has to and this really blows his credibility to bits."

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman, meanwhile, said he trusted Cunliffe.

"This is obviously an issue for the National Party which is caught up in the Donghua Liu scandal and the Labour Party which is caught up in it. But the Green party is focussed on the big issues. We're not going to get caught up in this one."

He admitted that politicians being caught out misleading the public undermined public trust in them.

"Clearly there are issues and I think it must have some impact... but that's why its very important that we clean up the electoral finance rules and improve them."

THE LETTER TO IMMIGRATION

A file held by Immigration New Zealand, released this afternoon, shows a letter from 2003 in which Cunliffe detailed Liu's plans to set up an export venture.

Cunliffe's letter, written on parliamentary letterhead and carrying his photo, shows he had met with Liu. Cunliffe was not a minister at the time.

Liu had approached him to express concern about the time it took to process his investment category application, Cunliffe wrote.

He asked that Liu be given a time frame for the processing of his application. He also displayed knowledge of Liu's business dealings, including a joint venture to export "large quantities of agricultural and horticultural products to China."

Cunliffe wrote he hoped the products would be available to market in July 2003.

Former Te Atatu MP Chris Carter also lobbied for Liu in October 2002 after he was approached by Liu's business partner Hui Lee.

Carter said Liu invested more than $3 million in an Auckland branch of ANZ and wanted to buy a building for re-development. 

CUNLIFFE'S CASH-FOR-ACCESS ACCUSATIONS

Cunliffe has previously accused National of doing "cash for access" deals with Liu.

Former Cabinet minister Maurice Williamson was forced to resign after he spoke to police on Liu's behalf in a domestic-abuse investigation. Williamson also lobbied Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy for Liu to receive citizenship in 2010.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse was criticised for meeting with Liu, who wants the rules on wealthy migrants to be relaxed, to discuss policy.

Uncertainty has swirled this week over an alleged donation to the Labour party in 2007. It has been claimed Liu paid $15,000 at an auction for a book signed by then-prime minister Helen Clark but Labour says it can find no record of the sale.

Cunliffe became a minister in 2004, taking up the ICT portfolio, and took over the Immigration portfolio for two years from October 2005.

Asked yesterday if he was concerned Liu was granted permanent residency - against official advice - Cunliffe said:

"Look I am not familiar with the circumstances of that decision and I don't think it is appropriate for us to go back and try and re-visit every single immigration decision that has ever been made.

"As far I am aware it was before my time as minister and it was certainly years before there was any suggestion that he made any donations."

He said there was "no evidence" of a donation from Liu.

"It's historical and it's purely an allegation," he said.

Cunliffe couldn't recall meeting, and when asked if he advocated for residency, responded: "No, I did not."

Asked if he was aware it was granted against the recommendation of officials he said: "Not to my recollection."

WHO IS DONGHUA LIU?

- Chinese born Donghua Liu was granted permanent residency by then-immigration minister Damien O'Connor in 2004, against the advice of officials. The wealthy migrant moved from Chongping where he owned a cement factory and sold real estate.

- He quickly developed links to Labour, inviting former minister Rick Barker to a dinner and to tour of his factory when on a private trip to China. It is claimed he paid $15,000 for a signed book at a fundraising auction in 2007, although the party can find no record of the payment.

- Liu was granted citizenship in 2010 after then-building and construction minister Maurice Williamson and then-Auckland mayor John Banks lobbied the Government. Officials recommended the application be turned down because of concern about his English language skills. Williamson performed the citizenship ceremony the day after it was granted.

- Prime Minister John Key, along with Williamson, opened Liu's $70m Boulevard Hotel project in Auckland

- In 2012, a business owned by Liu donated $22,000 to the National party. He met with Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse to lobby for policy changes

- Liu bought a beachfront property in Pauanui on the Coromandel peninsula the following year, next to Williamson's bach.

- In December, Liu was charged with assaulting a woman with intent to injure after an incident at the Newmarket Hotel. He appeared at the Family Court in Auckland early this year and pleaded guilty to assaulting his de facto wife and her mother. He is seeking discharge without conviction and is due to be sentenced in August.

- Stuff

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