High-flyers among Travelgate MPs

Parliament is trying to claw back its credibility after the spectre of the Travelgate scandal once again reared its ugly head this week. In line with a high court order handed down last month, Parliament released documents detailing the names of MPs allegedly linked to the civil claims arising out of the multimillion-rand Travelgate scam.

The court ordered Parliament to release schedules to a sale-of-claims agreement between it and the liquidators of Bathong Travel, one of the main travel agencies implicated in Travelgate.

In early 2009, Parliament took the controversial decision to buy the outstanding claims being pursued by the liquidators of Bathong against MPs who had used the travel agency.

The Centre for Social Accountability (CSA) took the matter to court after Parliament refused a request, made under the Promotion of Access to Information Act in March 2009, to release the schedules detailing the outstanding claims.

“By buying the claims, Parliament was able to secure control over the collection of outstanding money and could decide whether to pursue MPs or not,” the CSA’s spokesperson, Jay Kruuse, said.

This week the secretary to Parliament, Zingile Dingani, said that Parliament was writing off R12-million of debt, resulting from the misuse of parliamentary travel vouchers, as it would cost more to recover the funds than they were worth. He also said that, owing to the time lapsed, many of the claims were prescribed and so could not be pursued.

Parliament opted to buy the debtors book after the liquidators estate had run out of funds, and, as the largest creditor, it would have had to contribute the largest portion towards the cost of pursuing claims. It sought to mitigate its risk and limit the exposure to a potential adverse costs order or legal fees incurred in proceedings with actions against members, the agreement said.

But Kruuse argued that there was still room to pursue the claims. “This explanation stands in contrast to the progress that was being made by the liquidators of Bathong up until such time as Parliament purchased such claims, as is evidenced in the Parliament’s Annual Reports for 2006/2007, 2007/2008 and 2008/2009,” he said.

“The recent judgment also noted that three senior counsel gave legal opinion that the claims were good in law and enforceable.”

According to the schedules, 89 MPs were being pursued by the liquidators of Bathong for amounts totalling over R5-million.

Parliament, by far the largest creditor in the liquidation, paid about R380 000 to buy the outstanding claims, at the taxpayers’ expense.

But Dingani said that the MPs on the list were not criminally liable for the outstanding amounts. “The schedules relate to civil claims. The names of individuals therein are not criminally culpable individuals,” Dingani said. “In many instances members were not even aware that the travel agent had used their names to commit fraud against Parliament.”

Debtors book
Nevertheless, the schedules reveal the names of high-profile individuals whom the liquidators were pursuing for outstanding amounts at the time, including the minister of state security, Siyabonga Cwele, who was being pursued for a claim of R24 000. Others included Lulu Xingwana, the minister for women, children and people with disabilities, who was being pursued for R54 800, and the minister of correctional services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, for R42 650.

A number of MPs and former MPs were being pursued for amounts well over R100 000 when the debtors book was sold.

Of the 89 names, only six MPs were criminally charged, said Dingani.

Gary Pienaar, senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Africa, said that Parliament’s handling of the Travelgate affair and its purchase of the debtors book raised more questions than it answered. “A key issue is what was done internally to address the issue,” he said.

The Democratic Alliance’s chief whip, Ian Davidson, said the integrity of Parliament was severely compromised by its failure to resolve the Travelgate saga through a speedy judicial process and to institute criminal proceedings against directly implicated MPs and to compel them to repay the money they owed.

In a statement he said he would be writing to the speaker, Max Sisulu, requesting that the list of names be handed to the opposition parties in a bid to ensure that action was taken against guilty individuals.

The DA objected to the decision by the Parliament oversight authority to buy the Bathong debtors book and walked out of the multiparty committee that was set up to finalise the Travelgate inquiry and report back to Parliament’s presiding officers.

“It was nothing more than an attempt to whitewash the matter and not take the necessary steps to pursue, where possible, outstanding moneys,” he said.

But Ben Turok, co-chairman of Parliament’s joint committee on ethics and members’ interests, defended the MPs’ transgressions, which, he said, in many cases had been done in all innocence.

There had been “a looseness” in the way the travel claims had been managed, he said, but the responsibility did not rest solely with the parliamentarians. “Officials did not exercise sufficient authority over these matters and officials are legally bound to protect Parliament’s finances,” he said. The system was “lax” and allowed for misunderstanding and mismanagement to arise, he said.

“This is not to deny that flagrant abuses did not happen, which were dealt with,” he said. “But the media were unkind in their generalisations about corruption in Parliament.”

He said his committee was doing everything in its power to endorse ethical conduct among MPs.

According to Parliament, since the scandal it has implemented an electronic travel procurement system to replace the voucher system and to ensure tighter, more effective control of members’ travel. “The travel data is stored centrally through the electronic platform via which members and service providers request travel and authorisation occurs.”

The authorisation of bookings now requires a PIN number or system password authenticated by members either by SMS or by logging on to the system.

The parliamentarians respond

  • Butana Komphela denied that he owed any money relating to Bathong or Travelgate and said that to brandish his name in the matter “was very wrong”.

  • Brian Dube, spokesperson for Siyabonga Cwele, said the minister “considered the matter as finalised”.

  • Sonwabo Mbananga, spokesperson for Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, said she had not seen the document and could not comment on the matter.

  • Spokesperson for the ministry of police Zweli Mnisi said deputy minister Maggie Sotyu did not owe Parliament any money. He said she was aware her name had been listed but said it was miscommunication between Parliament and the travel agency.

  • The ministry for women, child­ren and people with disabilities could not respond to requests for comment by the time of going to press.