Sol's gamble pays off

Sol Kerzner’s foray into the USgambling arena is set to proceed apace now that South African charges have been dropped, report Stefaans Brmmer and Ferial Haffajee

SUN king Sol Kerzner was cleared of his decade-old Transkei bribery charges by default. Umtata Attorney General Christo Nel appears to have been swayed by a lack of evidence, rather than conclusive proof of Kerzner’s innocence.

Now that he is off the hook, Kerzner can start building his American empire in earnest. Authorities in New Jersey, where Kerzner has applied for a permanent licence to operate his multi-million-dollar Atlantic City gambling resort, this week told the Mail & Guardian a successful extradition on the Transkei charges would have seriously prejudiced the application.

Kerzner has already opened another $275- million gambling resort, the Mohegan Sun, on Mohegan tribal lands in Connecticut.
The licence for that deal, too, was issued amid controversy.

Now, eight years after Kerzner confessed to the Harms commission that he had been party to the R2-million paid to Transkei homeland leader George Matanzima for exclusive casino rights, the saga - in South Africa, at least - appears destined for an uneasy rest on the scrap-heap of history. Kerzner defended the payment as an “extortion”.

Nel, who for years fought a single-handed and often uphill battle to test the charges against Kerzner in court, surprised all last week when he told Parliament’s justice committee “new information” had persuaded him not to prosecute Kerzner, Matanzima or former Cape Town mayor David Bloomberg, also implicated in the deal.

This week, Nel told the M&G that while Kerzner’s interdict had not influenced his decision, “it was looming very large in the future”. He said it would have been a difficult case to prove anyway, and that the death in a car accident in the early 1990s of a crucial witness - understood to be Monti Nthloko, former head of the Transkei Development Corporation and an alleged mediator between Kerzner and Matanzima - had compromised his ability to prove the charges.

Nel described the “new information”, gleaned since last month, as a “body-blow from where I did not expect it”, which meant that his painfully rebuilt case would again be more difficult to prove in court. It is understood that central to this is a witness who changed their story or became unavailable.

Nel would not elaborate, but he will have to do so soon. African National Congress MP Willie Hofmeyer, acting chair of the justice committee, this week said the detail given by Nel had been “somewhat sketchy” and that Nel would be asked to give the committee full details in a public hearing.

He said while Nel’s independence and decision were respected, there was “public concern that all is not well” and “there should be some level of public accountability”.

Kerzner’s temporary licence to the Atlantic City gambling resort expires at end-July. Investigators from both New Jersey and Connecticut have visited South Africa for meetings with Nel and former Transkei leader Bantu Holomisa, who last year claimed Kerzner had attempted to bribe the ANC to have the Transkei charges dropped.

This week Thomas Auriemma, the deputy director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, said: “If [Nel] had proceeded with extradition it would have had a serious impact on the application for a [permanent] licence in New Jersey.”

New Jersey authorities are more careful about granting licences than those who approved the Mohegan Sun deal. All applicants must show “good character, honesty and integrity”, corroborated by state investigations.

Auriemma said his own background report on Kerzner was “several months away from completion” - meaning Kerzner may have to apply for another three-month extension to his temporary licence. In the 1980s, Kerzner’s bid for another Atlantic City casino was thwarted because the Bophuthatswana homeland was deemed to have been an apartheid project.

Holomisa this week repeated his claim that Kerzner had influenced the ANC through his donation to the party, and charged a possible reason for the decision not to prosecute Kerzner could be the embarrassment it would have caused in America were Kerzner charged after the Mohegan Sun licence had already been awarded. “Was a political directive handed down?” he asked.

Holomisa asked that the investigation against Kerzner be re-opened, but by an independent body. “Both the ruling party and the National Party benefited from Kerzner. So the likelihood is that parties will not press hard on the attorney general to prosecute ... A dog with a bone doesn’t bark.”

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