Aaron Nattrass is not graceful. He moves with none of the ease that marks the steps of so many big men. But, to those who have followed the bizarre twists and turns of his seven-year legal feud with the graft-busting Independent Commission Against Corruption, it was a shock yesterday to see him shuffle slowly out of the District Court. He had won. But he was a beaten man. His face was red and spotty. His voice, which normally rises in a crescendo with cadences reminiscent of an Italian opera diva, was reduced to a near-whisper. As he walked past the court house, an incredulous reporter reached out, grabbed the 37-year-old New Zealand businessman by the shoulder, and asked: 'Aren't you happy that you have been acquitted? That you are now free?' 'No. It is tragedy,' Mr Nattrass said slowly. 'It should never have happened in the first place.' What happened started so long ago - nearly a decade - that the reason for the prosecution of the alleged $1.5 million New Zealand immigration scam is difficult to unravel. So what was his alleged wrongdoing? What Mr Nattrass had done was match New Zealand jobs to Hong Kong people looking for a quieter, gentler place to live. That in itself is not illegal, but the ICAC and Legal Department claimed it was all a sham. The prosecution case against Mr Nattrass was that he invented bogus jobs in non-existent New Zealand companies, which he matched up to Hong Kong emigrants who had no intention of ever taking the work once they had secured visas. But an investigation of the former Auckland traffic officer's business by Hong Kong police in 1990 came up empty-handed. They walked away from it, because 'there was not enough evidence to convict'. Formally acquitting Mr Nattrass yesterday, District Court judge Duncan Kilgour, who brought the trial to a conclusion last Friday, said the police 'must be congratulating themselves at this point' that they would not be proceeding with the 'basically flawed' case. Some people suspect the ICAC of pursuing Mr Nattrass because 'he was annoying'. A friend of his said: 'Even when Aaron is right about things, he has a way of getting up your nose. I think this prosecution was personal. He hadn't broken any laws, just stepped on toes, and kept stepping on them until someone screamed, 'stop'.'' 'It may not be nice, but it's not illegal. I think the New Zealand Government was afraid of him.' But would the ICAC, the Legal Department and New Zealand Government spend so much time and cash on prosecuting a man simply because he was annoying? There is more to the Aaron Nattrass saga than overzealous interpretation of the law by the authorities, as some legal observers contend. It has gone before two District Court judges and brought the reputations of two other judges into question with allegations of political pressure. Since the trial opened before District Court judge Brian Caird in May 1995, there have been legal applications to adjourn it by the prosecution, the defence and even the judge. It was claimed four witnesses were dead and key documents had been destroyed. Judge Caird tried to have himself removed from the case when he discovered a witness, Dorothy Smith - a senior New Zealand immigration officer based in Hong Kong - was the same woman who 13 years earlier had made insulting racial slurs against his Chinese wife. Ms Smith had asked Judge Caird: 'I suppose you found her in Wan Chai.' The judge said he replied: 'She does come from Wan Chai, but not from a brothel.' His June 1995 bid to step down from the case was rejected by the High Court. But in September 1996 Judge Caird finally withdrew from the trial on medical grounds and requested early retirement. He was alleged to have told two senior Crown prosecutors, John Reading and Ian McWalters, that he was being pressured by fellow District Court judges, New Zealanders Clare-Marie Beeson and Richard Hawkes, to convict the defendant. The two judges strenuously denied the claims. Mr Caird avoided an inquiry when a medical examination revealed he had a brain abnormality, which, it was alleged, led to his erratic behaviour the night he made the comments about the alleged political pressure to convict Mr Nattrass. That trial collapsed and the case was assigned to Judge Kilgour, a judge known for his 'no-nonsense' courtroom demeanour. There have also been political ramifications. Confidential New Zealand immigration documents, labelled top-secret and dated February 27, 1992, include a memo from the Wellington office addressed to the Hong Kong office and the territory's police, detailing why it was undesirable for any of the service's staff to be 'put on the witness stand in Hong Kong'. 'This could lead, among other things, to detailed cross-examination of the New Zealand policy and procedure that would be inappropriate in a foreign court and could be embarrassing to the New Zealand Government,' the document stated. But why would the New Zealand Government fear having its immigration policy examined under oath in Hong Kong? According to immigration experts, not until 1986 did New Zealand's heavily white-biased immigration policy change radically. That was when the Government reviewed new sources of immigration for the country and decided to concentrate on 'non-traditional' markets, such as Asia. Just because the policy changed, it did not mean the Immigration Service did. Like many bureaucrats, its staff resented being told how to manage their turf and began giving the law their own interpretative twist. 'Aussie' Malcolm, a New Zealand immigration minister in the 1980s who calls himself 'no friend of Nattrass', was sued by the Hong Kong immigration consultant. The suit was settled out of court but Mr Malcolm has always maintained Mr Nattrass' innocence of fraud. 'I think Nattrass has an unfaltering Boy Scout's belief the system will prevail,' he said. 'He saw a little loophole and he drove a bloody London bus through it. 'But there is something much more frightening than just the case of one immigration consultant running close to the line. 'What has happened in this extraordinary saga is on the public record, but much of what went on is hidden and I suspect always will be. There is a pervading stench of an abuse of power in this case. That should cause concern to civil libertarians in Hong Kong. It smacks of the 'the cosy old boys' club'.' Mr Nattrass is no stranger to the news. He first hit the headlines in New Zealand in 1986 when as a traffic cop he claimed a chief traffic officer, Ernie Seath, had been falsely endorsing traffic summons notices. Seath pleaded guilty to 20 fraud charges but two months later Mr Nattrass, in a swirl of controversy, was out on the street. He claimed he had been victimised for blowing the whistle on his popular boss. Mr Nattrass says it was his dedication 'to a job I loved', patrolling the parking meters of Auckland, that brought on the heart problem that nearly killed him. His fiercely loyal sister, Anne-Marie, claims Aaron took a karate kick to the heart during a dispute over a parking infraction. 'No one ever said it's easy being a traffic cop but he did his job, he went out on the streets and it nearly killed him.' He would later cite his heart condition as a reason for halting the Hong Kong court. A year later Mr Nattrass had hung up his uniform and set up his immigration business in Hong Kong. But he chafed at the slow pace of the New Zealand Immigration Service. 'He was always trying to find a way to get things moving, but instead of helping he just got people's backs up,' a close friend said. 'He would go into the immigration office at 4.59 pm, just before the office closed, and demand documents. If they refused he would throw the Access to Information Act at them. If he didn't get what he needed then, well, they could find themselves slapped with a lawsuit.' Frustrated by delays in the approval of 96 Hong Kong families, Mr Nattrass took out a full-page advertisement in three of New Zealand's leading newspapers in January 1990, complaining about the holdups. Relations with the immigration service in Hong Kong became so acrimonious that he slapped a lawsuit on senior immigration officer Tony Anisy in June that year, claiming he had been banned from the service's office. Mr Anisy was recalled to New Zealand soon afterwards. Mr Nattrass also made a failed attempt to sue the then New Zealand high commissioner, Don Greenfield, in 1991 over the saga. Little was heard of Mr Anisy, who after returning to New Zealand found himself marginalised and overlooked for promotion. Two years ago, he was made redundant. In March, he turned up as the star witness in the prosecution case. The frail, introverted man was the reason the Nattrass trial had adjourned from Wan Chai and moved to the High Court in Auckland. The Hong Kong entourage included prosecutor Peter Cahill, defence barrister Andrew Raffell, two ICAC officers, Mr Nattrass, solicitors for each side and 110 kilograms of documents, a court clerk and Judge Kilgour. The hearing was expected to last 10 days. It ran for over three weeks and the costs rose well over $650,000. It was Mr Nattrass' first trip to his native country since the ICAC burst into his Central immigration consultancy office in 1990 and charged him with deception, forgery and fraud. On the aircraft to New Zealand, Mr Nattrass had a story of injustice to tell, a story that once started he cannot stop. 'People have told me to run, to go to Canada or to stay here and fight it on extradition, especially with the handover coming in July. But I'm not running; I'm going to fight this. I know I can win,' he said. In Auckland High Court, the prosecution claimed Mr Anisy was too mentally unstable and depressed to travel. They laid their hopes for a conviction on his narrow shoulders. But in the witness box a composed Mr Anisy admitted his private doctor, not a psychiatrist, had only advised travelling might not be 'a good thing'. He was not debilitated by his depression, he said, adding that it had first developed when he was working in the Hong Kong office and dealing with Mr Nattrass. But Mr Anisy's tale seemed to help the defence more than the prosecution. He admitted Mr Nattrass' clients did not have to work in the jobs for which they had been accepted. Nothing in the law said they had to, he told the court. This was the loophole Mr Nattrass had driven his business through. If a client arrived in New Zealand and did not show up at the new job, nothing could be done. Mr Anisy accepted the loophole was there, saying no one had taken advantage of it before. The defence began to call the move to Auckland a charade. 'It really is a pretty poor show,' Mr Raffell, the defence lawyer, said. 'We are nine years away from the incidents, seven years away from the [ICAC] search and three years away from the arrest. And the crown is saying 'hopefully' they can tie this in.' To make matters worse for the prosecution Mr Anisy, who had been calm and unbiased under Mr Raffell's examination, burst into tears when Mr Cahill began cross-examining him. Yesterday, Aaron Nattrass did not want to talk about anything to do with his seven-year saga. The last word may have gone to his old opponent, 'Aussie' Malcolm. 'Aaron will keep being Aaron. And that means he will keep after what he thinks is right,' he said. 'The law will bend and twist under him. But I can never picture him in prison. Not Aaron.'