Banks' Dotcom call to Williamson made as a 'citizen'
KATE CHAPMAN, DANYA LEVY, JOHN HARTEVELT AND ANDREA VANCE
John Banks has admitted calling Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson to lobby for internet tycoon Kim Dotcom, but says he didn't do anything wrong.
Pressure is growing on Prime Minister John Key to stand down the ACT leader from his ministerial roles while police investigate donations to his campaign.
Following a complaint by Labour MP Trevor Mallard, police are investigating whether Banks knew the sources of a $15,000 donation from Sky City and two $25,000 ones from Dotcom - they were declared as anonymous. Candidates must declare donations if they know who they are from.
Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson this morning confirmed Banks had called him in mid 2011 on behalf of Dotcom, who was applying through the Overseas Investment Office to buy his Coatesville mansion.
Bank said this afternoon he spoke to Williamson about two times, largely about procedural matters because Dotcom's application was taking a long time to process.
"I rang Maurice Williamson about it, I wasn't the Mayor of Auckland, I wasn't a Member of Parliament, I was a private citizen and I made the phone call and I'd do it again."
"I said to Mr Dotcom I would give him advice on that and I did."
The Government did not listen to Banks "high level political lobbying" and turned Dotcom's application down.
"I had sympathy for Dotcom, one because he'd been particularly generous to New Zealand, two he was an entrepreneur who came to New Zealand to live in this home and do great things for New Zealand, three he was a New Zealand resident.
"I only had discussions with Williamson about the process, I wasn't interested in the outcome, of course if Dotcom was given approval to buy his home it would have been a good outcome."
Banks was not aware of Dotcom's donation to his mayoral campaign at the time, he said.
He said he had hundreds of conversations over 18 months with people looking to donate to his campaign.
"If all the people who said they'd make donations to my campaign had of made donations to my campaign, I would have probably raised five times as much as I did."
Banks said he would not stand down because legal advice confirmed that his submission to the electoral commission was correct and within the law.
He also received advice telling him not to comment on the issue and now regretted having followed that last week, he said.
"One of the problems that I've put myself in is the obfuscation of questions because I took literally the legal advice that you should not say anything that would jeopardise an inquiry."
However, Banks said he had not lied.
"I'm 100 per cent sure on the first piece of legal advice that legally I have nothing to fear and nothing to hide.
"If you don't like the electoral laws; change them," he said.
Banks could not recall talking to other ministers on Dotcom's behalf.
He did now recall flying into Dotcom's Auckland mansion in a helicopter, but only after talking to friends and checking his records.
"I'm a helicopter pilot and I've done hundreds and hundreds of flights in and out of properties around Auckland over many, many years, at the time I was asked, I did not recall.
"It wasn't a big issue for me."
Asked if Banks, a former National minister, was a friend rather than just a member of the public, Williamson replied: "Well, he was a member of the caucus with me for many, many years, yes. But so are lots of other members of the National party caucus."
Williamson and former Cabinet colleague Simon Power declined the application in July despite Overseas Investment Office advice to approve it. Williamson said the rejection was on the grounds of character.
He added: "I know nothing about what Mr Banks received by way of donation, and nor should I."
Asked if Banks should go he said: "It's not for me to say."
KEY STANDING HIS GROUND
Key said this morning if Banks was found to have lied over a donation from Dotcom, he would be kicked out of Cabinet.
Dotcom would be able to get phone records to show Banks rang him but it didn't prove he rang to thank him for a donation, he said.
"In the end, if Mr Dotcom could prove Mr Banks was not telling the truth, I think we all know what the consequences of that are.
"That would be that Mr Banks has lied to my office and no minister can enjoy my confidence if they lie to me, but there is no evidence to prove that."
Key this morning faced further questions from reporters about discrepancies in statements by Banks about Dotcom, but he referred such questions to the ACT leader.
Asked if he still had confidence in his minister outside Cabinet, Key replied "absolutely".
He said he doubted Williamson initially approved Dotcom's failed purchase of his Coatesville Mansion because of lobbying by Banks.
There was nothing wrong with Banks' lobbying of the Government on behalf of Dotcom before he was a minister, Key said.
Banks said previously he had met Dotcom - who the United States is trying to extradite on piracy and money laundering charges - but their interactions totalled about a 20-minute conversation.
It has since been revealed he was flown in a helicopter to the Dotcom mansion, watched a fireworks display with the MegaUpload founder and had a meal with him and his wife Mona.
Key was asked on TV3's Firstline about an email from Dotcom and his wife thanking Banks for ''your kind offer to help me to become a resident'' and offering to support the mayoral candidate ''in anyway we can''.
''It doesn't change anything. The question is when he signed his declaration under the local government law, did he comply with the law,'' Key said.
He said the helicopter ride and the fact that Banks contacted Dotcom did not mean he acted illegally.
''He wasn't a member of Parliament, he wasn't a minister of the Crown and he wasn't the mayor. There's nothing wrong with lobbying. People lobby ministers all the time.''
Key said he had not spoken directly to Banks but the ACT leader had given ''an absolute and categorical assurance to my office'' that he acted legally.
Banks yesterday rejected Dotcom's claim he rang him to thank him for the donation, saying he contacted him ''on other matters''.
Dotcom has said Banks asked him to split the donation in two so that it would be anonymous and yesterday produced records of two cheques for $25,000 he paid in June 2010.
Yesterday the prime minister said there was ''a wide definition of ethics'' and the test he had to apply for his ministers was the law.
Banks' hand-written returns show he received donations for his campaign totalling $948,937, including $87,000 from himself.
Two thirds of the amount he received was described as coming from ''anonymous donors'', with the biggest single donation $30,000.
PETERS AND SHEARER PILE IN
NZ First leader Winston Peters says he would "seriously consider" laying a complaint with the Serious Fraud Office about Banks' donations.
The SFO was still able to investigate the donations despite its threshold for investigation being raised from $500,000 to $2 million in 2010, he said.
In 2003 the SFO launched an investigation into former ACT MP Donna Awatere Huata who it later charged with defrauding the Pipi Foundation of $80,000.
Peters said that showed the SFO did not need a complaint or its threshold met to investigate a matter, it just needed to be in the public interest.
"What are they doing now, you've got $600,000 in secret or anonymous donations. What are they waiting for?"
The SFO said it would give "due diligence" to any complaint it received that fitted into its threshold.
The SFO investigated NZ First's donations in 2008 but cleared the party of any wrongdoing.
Key was Opposition leader at the time and called for Peters to be stood down while the investigation was underway.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Should TVNZ staff be forced to disclose party political links?Related story: TVNZ may seek staff's political ties