Travelgate: MPs to out ANC big fish

Mounting anger in the ANC parliamentary caucus over the political management of the Travelgate scandal is focused on chief whip Mbulelo Goniwe, who has been accused by some of those facing charges of sacrificing them to protect more powerful party figures.

There are 30 people facing charges in the Travelgate affair, seven of whom are travel agents and 21 of whom are MPs. An additional five MPs charged have already plea-bargained.

A group of those charged now say they will use the legal process to ensure that they are not hung out to dry while more senior figures, including Goniwe himself, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and other top officials are allowed to make financial settlements and escape further sanction.

The case of Jabu Sosibo and Barbara Thomson sparks particularly intense feeling among MPs. The two made extensive use of car hire services in breach of parliamentary travel rules.
They were summonsed to pay large settlements to liquidators, more than R237 000 and R74 000 respectively, but decided to challenge the amount of the settlements in court.

That legal process could have publicly revealed the detailed contents of a forensic report which identifies 330 MPs as the recipients of improper benefits. But Goniwe prevailed upon Thomson and Sosibo to drop their legal action in the interests of the ANC, saying they would receive assistance to help deal with the impact of the settlement. Both apparently understood this to mean that they would receive financial assistance.

When they then abandoned the court challenge, they were landed not only with the liquidators’ bill, but also with responsibility for the legal costs incurred as a result of the abandoned court challenge. Three sources in the parliamentary caucus have told the Mail & Guardian that the total costs have reached between R900 000 and R1-million.

According to the same sources, when Goniwe stepped in to help, he did so by introducing them to a “lender”, who now recoups payments totaling close to R15 000 per month through two monthly debit orders on each of their bank accounts. In addition to principal and interest payments, the lender appears to be charging more than R1 200 per month for life insurance to ensure that he recoups his money in the event that they die before paying him back.

MPs sympathetic to Thomson and Sosibo said neither had consented to the insurance payments, were struggling to subsist on their remaining income and appeared to have been given no clarity about the terms of the loan or the interest rate they are being charged.

Sosibo and Thomson have, however, also received concrete support from senior ANC officials such as parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete, who wrote a letter excusing them from a liquidation hearing on the grounds that they needed to be present in Parliament.

Meanwhile, some of the accused say that Goniwe’s mandate from the ANC’s national executive committee was that he should arrange for those who benefited from the fraud to plea-bargain, persuading them to cut deals with the National Prosecuting Authority in which they would admit guilt, but not be sentenced to prison terms of more than 12 months without being given the option of a fine, and they could keep their jobs. This arrangement would ensure that they did not become constitutionally ineligible to keep their parliamentary seats. This was seen as an effort to avoid uncomfortable revelations in court.

However, the five MPs who have already plea-bargained were blindsided, one source said. “They were told they would keep their jobs, but each was then presented with an identical letter of resignation to sign. I don’t trust them now. And I can tell you one thing, I am not going to resign, they will have to fire me,” said the source, referring to ANC leadership at Luthuli House.

Meanwhile, some of the accused wonder why they have been charged while so many others have not. “We want to know what criterion was used to decide to prosecute us and not the others,” said one of the accused MPs. “There are 330 names on that list and that issue will have to be raised with the judge if we go to court”.

The answer to that question so far has been that the NPA has had limited resources to pursue all those implicated in the scandal, but also, and crucially, that the liquidation of Bathong Travel, where many more senior ANC members used their travel vouchers, had not yet got under way when criminal investigations began. As the M&G has previously reported, Parliament delayed the liquidation of Bathong against the advice of its own lawyers for nearly a year, which made the forensic reconstruction of its books extremely difficult.

According to people familiar with the indictments against the 21 MPs who have been charged, the details of the accusations vary considerably. Some are accused of having inappropriately used vouchers for car hire, while others not only paid for car hire with their vouchers, they also allegedly went on to claim mileage expenses from Parliament as if they had been using their own vehicles. Others allegedly took it even one step further, claiming tax refunds for vehicle expenses they had never incurred.

Sources among the 21 MPs differ on whether or not they will plea-bargain. One source said that the legal costs of the trial would be dramatically higher than any combination of cash repayments and fines, and that it would be financially impossible to fight. But the source added that by appearing as a witness in trials of the travel agents or other MPs, he would be able to finger his more senior colleagues.

Others say they are being pressured to agree to plea bargains before October 17, the date of their court appearance, but that they will resist what they see as unfair attempts to scapegoat them. “We will go to court and the forensic report will have to come up. It is not just a question of us naming names, the names are in the report,” one of the accused says.

Independent Newspapers reported in May that Goniwe was paying back about R70 000 and Mapisa-Nqakula was also to make an undisclosed payment. A number of other senior figures including two deputy ministers, another Cabinet minister, and top parliamentary officials whose names are known to the M&G are mentioned in the report. Goniwe had not responded to messages requesting comment by press time.

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