/ 24 June 2008

Travelgate facts ‘misrepresented’

Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete is misrepresenting the facts of the Travelgate affair, a former attorney for Parliament said last week.

Bernard Kurz, who represented both Parliament and the liquidators at the height of the criminal and civil investigations into the affair, was responding to a Sunday Times report quoting Mbete saying the pursuit of MPs had been marked by ”venom for nothing” and was poorly founded in law.

She is also reported to have said that some of the MPs who signed guilty pleas following a Scorpions’ investigation into the travel fraud may have been wrongly prosecuted.

Kurz led the interrogation of MPs implicated in the fraudulent use of vouchers and attracted intense personal dislike among them for his dogged pursuit of outstanding debts and robust questioning style.

Approached for his reaction to Mbete’s comments, Kurz said: ”The Speaker has made three or four statements there. She knows each one of those is factually incorrect and the real problem is the manner in which the MPs have responded to the liquidators.”

According to the Sunday Times, Mbete said the property of 60 MPs had been confiscated following default judgements, only to be returned to them.

Kurz said the real number is ”a fraction of that” and that executions were only carried out when all other avenues were blocked.

MPs, he pointed out, were sent a series of letters saying that they appeared to owe money and requesting their cooperation in establishing whether this was correct.

In many cases these were ignored and summons was ultimately issued. Summonses, too, were often ignored and only then were default judgements obtained.

In a minority of cases where it appeared money was owed, notably that of Mbete herself and Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille, early letters from the liquidators were quickly responded to, proof of payment provided and no further action was needed.

”If they had all done that, this would have been over long ago”, Kurz said.

As the liquidation of the Bathong travel agency got under way in December 2005, Parliament was warned that delaying tactics by MPs could cause the process to drag on for years. The assistance of the presiding officers (Mbete and National Council of Provinces chair Mninwa Mahlangu) was requested in obtaining information.

The idea, according to people who have seen the correspondence, was that Parliament should set up a mechanism to facilitate dealings between MPs and liquidators, explain the process and manage the flow of information.

None was forthcoming, people familiar with the process have told the Mail & Guardian. Mbete refused to distribute letters from the liquidators in MPs’ pigeon-holes. She also set up a help desk for MPs using Ernst & Young, which the liquidators saw as an attempt to slow down and frustrate rather than help their inquiries.

Speaking of the failure of some MPs to respond to letters and even summonses, Kurz said: ”It has been an incredible disappointment to me that elected leaders have this kind of contempt for the legal process.”

The case cited by Mbete as an example of ”venom for nothing” appears to have been that of Eugene Ngcobo, whom liquidators believed owed R5 999 for car hire and service fees to which his parliamentary vouchers did not entitle him.

He has complained that the liquidators attached R100 000 worth of his property in execution of this debt and threatened to sue over violation of his constitutional rights.

The legal record in fact suggests that after prolonged attempts to negotiate with him, judgement was obtained and the sheriff of Centurion seized a lounge suite, two televisions, a mini hi-fi, a music centre, a microwave oven, mini-fridge and a washing machine. The sheriff put the value at R6 250 — a figure Ngcobo hotly disputed, saying he had spent more than R50 000.

He ultimately lost an application in the Cape High Court to rescind the judgement against him, set aside the warrant of execution and declare that his rights had been violated.

Kurz said Ngcobo had ultimately recovered his furniture because the liquidators believed the mounting legal costs outweighed the benefit of going after the money.

Mbete had not responded to a request for comment by the time the M&G went to press.