/ 15 October 2010

‘Failed processes, but honest man’

The findings of a disciplinary hearing involving Robin Nicholson, the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) chief financial officer (CFO) — who has for the past six weeks been acting chief executive — which have still to be aired in Parliament, cleared him of dishonesty and found that he had “great value to add to the SABC”.

But he was found guilty of negligence in deviating from SABC processes.

While Siphiwe Nyanda, the communications minister, has expressed his unhappiness about Nicholson’s appointment as acting chief executive, a copy of the findings reveals that advocate Nazeer Cassim SC described Nicholson as “a man of integrity”.

Nicholson was one of four senior executives suspended in October last year after the release of the auditor general’s report on fruitless and wasteful expenditure at the corporation. His hearing was held over two days in December.

Cassim, chairperson of the hearings, recommended that Nicholson be given a final written warning for negligence in deviating from SABC administrative processes in three instances. But he found him not guilty on the other charges and said Nicholson had made an “enormous input” in developing the SABC in challenging times.

Its turnover had quadrupled during his term of office and the enormity of the responsibility had greatly increased, said Cassim.

Cassim said he was satisfied that “the CFO is a man of integrity, dedicated to the interests of the SABC, and worked under very trying conditions under the former CEO.”

Cassim said he was not prepared to find that Nicholson had acted dishonestly in approving a payment of R22,5-million to complete a content scheduling and sales system project. Rather, he had been negligent in approving payment without formal notification or the board’s approval.

However, Cassim found that the project was approved by the SABC’s executive committee (Exco). Nicholson had expressed concerns that the board had not endorsed it at an Exco meeting, but had been overruled by those present, including the chief executive officer and chief operations officer, who were also board members.

Cassim wrote that Nicholson later felt compelled to release further funds, as he had been overruled by Exco and could frustrate the completion of the project if he withheld the money.

The project was doomed to failure because proper research had not been conducted, said Cassim, adding that “the ultimate decision to scrap the project and buy the system from the appropriate experts, as mooted by the CFO [Nicholson] saved an enormous sum of money for the SABC”.

Three board members knew of Nicholson’s approval of the funds, said Cassim, who found that the onus of bringing the issue to the board was on the chairperson of the finance committee.

He found that in two other instances, Nicholson had infringed SABC policies by not having proper contracts in place.

He was found not guilty of charges relating to the monitoring and prevention of petrol card abuse and of misconduct related to the procurement of the outside communication agency, Meropa, which the board hired.

Cassim stated that the interim board, led by chairperson Irene Charnley, should “ventilate” the findings on Nicholson, as the auditor general had raised concerns about his conduct.

The board had such trust and confidence in Nicholson’s ability that it had extended his contract, he said, adding: “In his demeanour before me, he depicted an individual with a sense of pride in his work and patriotism as a true South African, instilled to do his best for his employer and the SABC.”