A prominent New Zealand sports star linked to an international drug importation and supply conspiracy is fighting to keep his name secret in the Court of Appeal.
The sportsman had fought to keep his name hidden after being connected to the High Court trial of Tevita Fangupo, Tevita Kulu and Toni Finau earlier this year.
Former solicitor-general Michael Heron QC is representing the Kiwi star and argued on his behalf at a closed court hearing in the High Court on May 1, before further arguments were heard on May 27.
However, in a decision after the May trial, Justice Mathew Downs declined the sports star's bid for permanent name suppression.
The decision was challenged and was today heard at a hearing in Auckland for New Zealand's second highest court, with both the Crown and media opposing a permanent gag order.
The Court of Appeal judges, Justice Patricia Courtney, Justice Geoffrey Venning and Justice Rachel Dunningham have reserved their decision.
Fangupo, Kulu and Finau were charged and convicted of several charges for the alleged importation and supply of methamphetamine and cocaine, possession of firearms and conspiracy to supply drugs.
They were also acquitted on some of the charges they faced and had earlier pleaded guilty to firearms offences.
Along with another member of the group, Halane Ikiua, they will be sentenced on July 30.
A fifth man, Shane Singh, has already been jailed for 10 years and four months for importing a Class A drug.
Despite not being charged, the Crown named the sports star during the trial and alleged he was linked to the offending after several social media messages were uncovered.
The Crown also accused the sports star of taking cash from New Zealand to the US to buy meth and import back here, while a witness said he saw the sportsman purchase "white pills" in 2017.\
Former Solicitor-General Michael Heron QC is the sports star's lawyer. Photo / Michael Craig
Police said they were set to lay criminal charges against the sports star over his alleged involvement with the syndicate, which was importing its drugs from California.
But, sources have told the Herald, police did not consider they had have enough evidence to secure a conviction.
Police had tried to interview the sports star over the allegations but he exercised his right to silence.
A search warrant was also obtained for him but never executed.
Heron argued the decision not to charge his client implied there was inadequate evidence to charge him.
He said because of this the sport star couldn't defend himself at trial and would endure a trial by media if ever publicly named.
Today, Heron said his client "strongly denies the allegations" now that he has had a chance to see them.
"At no stage was a clear allegation made about what he was said to have done, where he did it," Heron said.
"We've been told he wouldn't be charged but there's no limitation under the Crimes Act for this sort of allegation."
Heron said his client is "now in a worse position now, frankly, than had he been charged".
The Queen's Counsel argued that Justice Downs was "in effect saying [the sportsman] has committed offences".
"He has a reputation, he has a family, he has a wider team and family that rely on him..."
Heron said if the sportman's name was public "there is no doubt that the implications will be very, very serious".
When making his decision on name suppression, Justice Downs said the sports star "would be in the worst of all worlds".
"He would be uncharged but 'guilty' in the court of public opinion, and likely suffer financial and reputational injury based on allegations he had never been required to answer," he said.
"[The sport's stars] reputation appears to be based on the commercially attractive proposition he is an upstanding and caring member of the community."
But Justice Downs said the sports star's "alleged financing of the defendants' operation was not an unimportant feature of the prosecution case".
"[His] alleged purchase of methamphetamine from Mr Finau was an important aspect of the representative supply charge confronting Mr Finau."
He continued: "[The sports star's] alleged preparedness to buy white pills from Mr Finau was advanced by Mr Finau as a material aspect of his case [that] the charges had not been established. Again, [the sportsman's] identity was important.
"[Sioeli] Fakafanua - Mr Finau's witness - said he clearly remembered what happened because he was 'so starstruck'."
The judge said if the sports star's name remained suppressed it may also "contribute to the incremental erosion of public confidence in the administration of criminal justice through disproportionate weight on immediate consequences instead of a long-term view."
The drug syndicate's conspiracy followed familiar patters, court documents released to the Herald show.
All of the packages came from California and were sent by post to Auckland, while the intercepted shipments also had similar notes - declaring clothing, most with a reference to Nike.
A majority of the packages included Nike footwear, but also concealed methamphetamine.
Ziploc branded bags, distinctive colours, and packaged cylinders with cling film were used to transport the drugs, the court documents reveal.
Detective Inspector Scott Beard said the sports star did not receive "special treatment". Photo / File
Three packages contained pillows - and large amounts of crystal meth, which ranged from just under half a kilogram to 3.5kg per package.
Coded communications intercepted by police also displayed similarities, and were what the Crown alleged linked the sportsman to the conspiracy, the court documents show.
There were several references in the messages to puha, Nike, t-shirts, shoes and keys.
Puha is the Tongan word for box but was used by the group as code to talk about meth, while keys meant kilograms.
"The significance of all this is that the defendants had a system - and this extended to payment for drugs in California," Justice Downs said in his decision.
"Mr Fangupo and Mr Kulu arranged for others to convert New Zealand money into United States money and take United States cash there. This brings me to the prominent sportsperson."
The Crown alleged the sportsman performed both roles for the group and had repeatedly bought meth from Finau.
The group, however, contested the Crown's case at trial by arguing nothing more than steroids and bodybuilding supplements were imported and supplied.
A musician, who also has name suppression, was called to give evidence at the trial and said he bought steroids from Kulu during 2018 on several occasions.
Another witness, Sioeli Fakafanua, said he saw Finau sell "white pills" to the sports star around 2017.
No one could say what the white pills were, but Finau claimed it was reasonably possible the pills were steroids or bodybuilding supplements.
More Crown evidence showed the sports star was listed as a contact on Fangupo's phone and in the messaging app Viber, and Singaporean experts were used to examine Kulu's phone after he refused to provide police with its password.
What they found were WhatsApp messages, which the Crown alleged showed the sports star exchanged and took drug money abroad.
One group of messages in July 2017 had Kulu communicating with a US contact known as "Tonga".
He also regularly talked with another Californian contact called "Coka".
In October 2017, Kulu sent Coka messages about meth pricing and said he had "all ur money ... the dude I was with that's on my Snapchat is going to change it to US currency".
"The dude" is the Kiwi sports star, the Crown alleges.
"They won't question him bout all the money ... [people] know he rich anyways so he'll be good to change it with no hassels," Kulu continued.
Coka replied: "hahaha hell year that's dope".
More Crown evidence allegedly linked the sports star to the group after Finau's phone was examined by police.
It revealed a series of Wickr messages between him and a username, which has been accepted by Heron to belong to the sports star, court documents read.
The Crown alleged that the messages, in November 2017, proved Finau was repeatedly supplying the sports star with meth.
The messages began with the sportsman saying he was in town and had "300 [dollars] but boys have the other so let me know when you can get it".
Finau arranged to meet the sportsman.
The next day, Finau wanted his money and the sports star, who had just finished training, assured him.
"You'll get your cash," he said.
The sports star also said the "boys get paid next week so they'll have $300 for the other one".
On November 11, 2017, the sportsman's alleged involvement continued when he asked Finau if he still needed a "new contact" and added "trust me, it's the best stuff out".
The sportsman organised for Finau to meet with the drug dealer and said: "He's a good Dude with the best stuff".
"It's 400 each but the best I've had," he added.
After picking up the drugs, Finau messaged the sports star and said, "sweet ... yeah good stuff".
The sportsman replied: "Better then last or same?"
"Can I have a taster?"
Finau responded: "LOL ... gota GET A bag ... NXT ONE I give you a taste lol."
After the trial, Detective Inspector Scott Beard released a statement on the lengthy investigation by the Auckland City organised crime unit.
He did not comment specifically about the sports star but said they did not receive "special treatment".
"We can confirm that as part of our investigation police identified others who may have been involved in this criminal activity and made significant enquiries into this but there was insufficient evidence to charge."