Labour leader Andrew Little says the $100,000 he offered hoteliers Earl and Lani Hagaman to settle a defamation suit was a stretch and required re-mortgaging his home.
The Scenic Hotel owners are suing Mr Little for $2.3 million in a trial before judge and jury in the High Court at Wellington.
They claim Mr Little implied Mr Hagaman was involved in corrupt dealings in comments he made in a press release and subsequent radio and television statements last April about a $100,000 donation made by Mr Hagaman to the National Party.
The donation was made a month before Mr Hagaman’s company was awarded a contract to operate Niue’s Matavai luxury resort.
The resort is heavily funded by the New Zealand Government and is owned by a trust on behalf of Niue’s Government.
Mr Little took to the stand in his defence yesterday, claiming he had done what he could to settle the matter but his attempts were not matched.
“I doubt now in hindsight, whether they were prepared to accept anything,” he said.
He claimed no offer seemed to be acceptable, including one in December and two in March and was disappointed it proceeded to trial.
An open settlement offer in early March included an offer of an apology and $26,000 to cover costs, while a second later that month included an apology and an offer of $100,000.
Mr Little said that was the most he could afford.
“Mr and Mrs Hagaman are very wealthy people, they can afford that sort of money,” he said.
“I made a proposal that stretched me, that I took personal responsibility for and thought was a genuine attempt to settle.”
He revealed he had to re-mortgage his family’s home to come up with the funds, but the offers were refused by the Hagamans who claim their legal expenses already exceed $250,000.
Mr Little said that amount seemed excessive and included the cost of a public relations firm, which he would not pay for.
But during cross-examination the Hagamans’ lawyer, Richard Fowler, QC, rejected the proposition that they had not spelled out exactly what they wanted, presenting a letter outlining their demands.
Mr Little admitted they had done that to a degree, but said there was no traditional offer, counter-offer negotiation that followed.
He also told the court his comments had been directed at the Government.
Mr Little claimed it had a track record of failing to “respect the basic principles of the matters of conflict of interest”.
“Then this story broke. It was enough to pique my interest.”
Mr Little said he referred the matter to the Auditor-General before releasing his media statement or taking part in any interviews.
“I wanted an assurance that this wasn’t yet another example of the Government bending the rules, not acting on conflicts of interest appropriately,” he said.
Mr Little also addressed the comments he made in radio and television interviews, telling the court that some of those quotes were selected from longer interviews.
Both parties have finished presenting witnesses but will make legal argument and closing statements today, before the jury deliberates. NZN