Simon Bridges says phone call recorded by Jami-Lee Ross doesn't stack up
Rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross has released the tape of him and National leader Simon Bridges discussing a $100,000 donation, in which Bridges describes one of his MPs as "f...ing useless".
But Bridges argues the tape actually exonerated him of any allegation of electoral fraud, and has hit back hard at Ross, saying he is a "liar" who had been "discredited" by the tape's release.
The release of the tape on Wednesday afternoon after three days of chaos in Parliament, where the bad blood has gotten so strong MPs' marriages are being called into question.
Ross released the tape after handing it over to police, who are now looking into his allegation of electoral fraud levied against Bridges.
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The allegation concerns a $100,000 donation from Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun, which Ross says Bridges asked him to split into smaller parts so it could remain anonymous.
But that conversation was not the one released. In the conversation from 25 June Ross and Bridges do discuss the donation and how to handle it, but there is no smoking gun.
"He [Ross] defamed me and he is a liar," Bridges said during a post-tape stand up on Wednesday.
The tape exonerated him, he said.
In the taped phone call, Ross reminds Bridges of the $100,000 donations, which Bridges says is "fantastic".
Bridges and Ross then mull over how to get the donation to the party, with Bridges saying he has to "find the right words" to talk to party president Peter Goodfellow.
Bridges says he needs the money for advertisements that are "not quite outside of the party".
Ross and Bridges then discuss how the Chinese donors are keen to get more than one ethnically Chinese MP, with Ross saying "two Chinese MPs are better than two Indians".
They decide to send one person to candidate college but leave more decisions for later on.
Bridges discusses a cull of his list MPs, noting that low-ranked MP Maureen Pugh is "f...ing useless".
He started his press conference by apologising to Pugh, saying the comments were not how he felt, he was "mortified and there was no excuse".
"This is a really big and hard lesson for me."
Pugh said she is "disappointed" with Bridges' attack on her, but she accepts his apology.
During the press stand up, Bridges said National was a party "that thinks about multiculturalism and representation" - and he was proud of this.
He said it was a "blunt private conversation" but stood by wanting a multicultural caucus.
He was "not perfect" and a "rough diamond" but he slept well at night because he knew when it counted, he did the right thing.
"I don't muck around with electoral law."
Bridges repeated Ross had "defamed" him and said he was "utterly discredited" and had attempted to blackmail him "criminally".
Ross had secretly been recording him for months, he suspected.
Bridges called Ross a "terrible" person. However, he said it was "hardly worth the time and effort" of pursuing legal action.
ROSS VISITS POLICE
After talking to three senior police detectives in Wellington on Wednesday, Ross said he didn't know if the police believed he had a reasonable case, but they did spend two hours talking.
"It's up to the police now."
He confirmed he had more recordings, including one alleged conversation where Bridges threatened to turn four women accusing Ross of harassment into fifteen.
Asked how long he had been recording his colleagues, Ross says this was not a habit, but after the allegations of harassment three weeks ago he started to record meetings.
"That's when I decided that I needed to protect myself," Ross said.
The Botany MP has caused days of political chaos with his bold allegations about Bridges, his former ally and party leader, all of which Bridges denies.
He has resigned from the party and pledged to stand in a by-election to contest the Auckland seat of Botany.
In a marathon press conference on Tuesday Ross said Bridges asked him to take the donation and break it into smaller pieces from different donors, illegally making it anonymous.
Bridges has denied any illegal activity, and deputy leader Paula Bennett has suggested that Ross acted alone in any unlawful acts.
"When you step back from it slightly it sounds like he has gone and collected that donation, that he has filed that claim. I'm worried for him as much as anyone else in all this," Bennett said on Wednesday, cautioning that this was speculation.
Ross' motives and role as a politician have been called into question during this saga, along with his personal life, with Bennett saying the allegations were about "inappropriate behaviour for a married MP" - not harrassment.
Stuff approached his wife, Lucy Schwaner, to comment on the allegations on Wednesday evening, but she declined to do so.
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said the National Party was in serious trouble if the allegations by Ross stacked up.
The allegations were discoverable "and I don't think he's flying blind, I think he's been well-advised by a legal mind".
Bennett said Bridges had met with Zhang at least twice and it would not surprise him if they had discussed a donation, but Bridges had asked Ross to organise it - but not break it up.
The first meeting was set up by Ross, Bennett said, so he continued to handle the donation.
"What we have from Jami-Lee yesterday is him saying he actually he rung Simon to entrap him," Bennett said.
She said Bridges did not recall that conversation, so "hypothetically" there could be anything in there.
Bennett threw out the idea that the phone call tape may be doctored, saying Bridges could not recall the conversation.
The party has not even found the donation yet, Bennett said.
"What the party are telling us at the moment is they can't find that donation, so I'm not sure which account - if he did collect it - which account he put it into," Bennett said.
The saga began in August when Bridges' travel expenses were leaked several days before they were due to be made public.
An investigation into that leak was not conclusive but found that Ross was the likely culprit.
Ross has denied being the original leaker, but has come clean about the fact that he was against the investigation and even leaked a text sent to Bridges from the original leaker where they said they had mental health issues.
He resigned from the party on Tuesday and is serving as an independent MP until the end of the week.