Banks' public fall from grace

COLIN ESPINER
Last updated 05:00 08/06/2014
05-AKL-BANKS11.jpg
DAVID WHITE
GUILTY: John Banks outside the High Court in Auckland after being found guilty of knowingly filing a false electoral return.

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OPINION: I don't like John Banks. He comes across as cold, confrontational, and conservative.

I don't like his politics or his manner. As someone wittier than I once said, Banks speaks like words cut out of newspaper articles and stuck together on a ransom note.

But I believe Banks is an honest and principled man, who has given most of his working life to public service. And goodness knows that's an often thankless and underpaid task.

Banks has been found guilty of filing a false electoral return over his 2010 Auckland mayoral campaign. It was a trifling matter that should never have gone to trial. And the penalty he has suffered is already far greater than any a court could impose.

Banks has been dragged through the mud; literally, thanks to the cantankerous and bewildered protestor Sam Bracanov, who seems to think Banks' service as a local body politician and cabinet minister is worth nothing more than a bucket of dirt on his way into court. It was Bracanov who deserved to be in the dock that day, not Banks.

And why was Banks before the High Court, exactly? It's a bloody good question. It all started in 2012, two years after Banks failed to win a third term as Auckland mayor, when TV3 asked him about two $25,000 donations listed as anonymous on his electoral return.

I have a fair idea how they found out about them. The internet tycoon Kim Dotcom (yes, him again, folks) alleged he had given Banks the $50,000 and that Banks had asked him to break it down into two smaller cheques. Why, I'm not sure, given either amount contravened the rules around anonymous donations.

I'm also unclear as to why Banks would have not wanted the donations from Dotcom made public, given his (then) public friendship with the giant German. But anyway.

The Electoral Commission said it couldn't investigate without a complaint and - wouldn't you know? - a complaint soon eventuated. Police took a look at it and, in July 2012, Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess decided that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

There the matter would have rested if not for pensioner and convicted tax cheat and blackmailer Graham McCready, a serial litigant who spends his time taking private prosecutions against public figures, including Labour MP Trevor Mallard (for punching fellow MP Tau Henare) and Auckland Mayor Len Brown over his use of free hotel rooms.

At the initial hearing a judge found there was "sufficient evidence" for the case to go to trial - not a terribly high bar, of course. But rather than let McCready bumble his way through the trial (and pay for it) the Solicitor-General suddenly decided to take over the prosecution.

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This meaningless, time-consuming and pathetic case has cost Banks his reputation, his political career, and his savings. And for what?

Whether or not you believe Banks really did know where the money for his mayoral campaign came from, this issue needs to be placed in some context. Most political parties and politicians know perfectly well - or strongly suspect - where their so-called "anonymous" donations are coming from.

And they get away with it, because our political-donations laws are an ass.

Parties do have to make public the totality of their donations, and the amount of them within certain bands, but only single amounts larger than $15,000 have to be declared with the name and address of the donor attached. And even then, if a donor really doesn't want anyone knowing they can file a "protected disclosure" donation of up to $43,000.

In this way, National declared some $3 million worth of donations about which the public knows nothing over the past three years. Labour declared $1.5m of such funding and the Greens, $500,000. All entirely legal. But don't tell me they've no idea where the money came from.

Of course, the "Everybody else is doing it" defence doesn't hold up well in court. And neither did Banks' exemplary previous record count, with Justice Wylie choosing to believe Dotcom, who incidentally has a conviction for failure to disclose shareholdings in Hong Kong, as well as a string of other convictions for insider trading and breach of trust - and is currently facing charges of fraud, copyright infringement and internet piracy.

Banks was unlucky. He was caught in a perfect storm that included Dotcom, angry at what he saw as Banks' "betrayal" of him after the raid on the Dotcom mansion, heightened public sensitivity over donations scandals, and McCready's appetite for a good scrap.

I know most people reading this won't shed any tears for Banks. He isn't likeable, and he's been a polarising figure for his entire public life. He did, however, pull himself up by his bootstraps from an impoverished childhood blighted by the criminality of his parents. He won an electorate seat and held it for 18 years. And he convinced a majority of Aucklanders to vote for him - twice.

Banks made a mistake. It wasn't the crime of the century. Police made the correct decision in the first place to let the matter lie.

Not for the first time, our justice and political systems have been commandeered by a busy-body serial litigant and a political pretender.

- Sunday Star Times

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