Riena Charles, was acquitted on fraud and corruption charges following her removal as the chief of Mpumalanga’s health department nine years ago.
Charles appeared in the Nelspruit Regional Court in 2008 to face 12 fraud and corruption charges involving the alleged violation of financial and tender controls. Despite her acquittal on all charges, it is clear not all members of the legal fraternity feel comfortable with her appointment to the commission of inquiry.
“We were all quite astounded to learn that she was working at the arms deal commission,” said a legal figure familiar with the case, who declined to be named. “It goes to whether she can be considered a fit and proper person for the job, considering it is a commission of inquiry where she will be working.”
The commission will be investigating allegations of corruption relating to the government’s multibillion-rand arms purchases and will be hiring five legal investigators. Commission spokesperson William Baloyi said it intended to have five advocates or attorneys whose functions would include, but not be limited to, investigations.
“Presently two are already in full employ, namely Riena Charles and Lindiwe Prudence Martha Mtimkulu,” said Baloyi.
Charles was an attorney, said Baloyi, but she had not practised for years while she had been in government positions. He said he had been informed that Charles was involved in ongoing arbitration processes with the Mpumalanga government as she fought to be reinstated in her job. When the scandal erupted, Charles was shifted from her health post to become the deputy director in then-premier Ndaweni Mahlangu’s office. She lost her job when she handed herself over after an arrest warrant was issued for her by the now defunct Scorpions.
“The commission took into consideration the information relating to her time in Mpumalanga,” said Baloyi. “The information at our disposal is that the matter was overturned by the arbitrator and that matter has no direct bearing on her allocated responsibility in the commission.”
A case for reinstatement
Baloyi said he had been informed that Charles had won her case for reinstatement, but this was apparently being appealed by the Mpumalanga government. The province’s director of labour relations could not be reached for comment.
The commission was, however, keeping an open mind on the issue, said Baloyi.
“If any new information is found, we will definitely look into it.”
Although Charles declined to speak to the Mail & Guardian, she asked that any comment on her appointment be made by Baloyi.
Although she did not want to speak about her experiences, she appears to have fought a long battle to clear her name. Her clash with the law began after three forensic reports implicated her and MEC Sibongile Manana, who were accused of gross mismanagement of Mpumalanga’s R19million HIV/Aids budget. A 200-page report by state forensic auditors also alleged that Charles had deliberately and artificially “padded” at least one R30million equipment order for hospitals, resulting in fruitless expenditure of R13.7million.
In 2008 Charles appeared in court with her co-accused and brother-in-law, Percy Siboza. They were accused of failing to disclose their relationship when Siboza’s company, KaMagobeni Holdings (Pty) Ltd, received multimillion-rand contracts to supply generators to hospitals in Mpumalanga.
Although Charles was accused of abusing her authority by irregularly awarding two R3.6million contracts to buy generators from Siboza, the charges were that these were allegedly supplied to hospitals that did not need them and in some cases were never delivered.
This is not the first controversial appointment the commission has made. Last week the M&G broke the news that it had seconded a human resources director in the justice department with no legal experience to take up the key role of secretary to the commission.
Breaking with tradition
By appointing Pretty Luphondo, the commission broke with the tradition of appointing an attorney who would be accountable to law societies. The move was seen by some legal professionals as a sign that the justice department could be trying to take control of the commission, something it vigorously denied.
Among her tasks, Luphondo will be the custodian of the evidence that is handed in to the commission. Her appointment came after the appointed secretary, Mvuseni Ngubane, a respected Durban attorney, allegedly committed suicide last month. Before his death, Ngubane told attorney Mxolisi Nxasana, president of the KwaZulu-Natal Law Society, that the justice department was trying to make his role a part-time one, which would not have allowed him to do justice to the job. “He said that, since the justice department came on board and took over the process, they wanted to dictate his remuneration,” Nxasana told the M&G a fortnight ago.
At a press conference last week, the commission announced a new legal team after it controversially removed two respected advocates picked as evidence leaders, Vas Soni and Sthembiso “Sticks” Mdladla. Both were unceremoniously dumped after claiming they had not received any official or verbal notification from the commission.
Commission chairperson Judge Willie Seriti said the body would need at least three years to make proper findings. He said the commission, which has been given a R40million budget that resides with the justice department, had the power to subpoena people and organisations to submit evidence and can recommend criminal prosecution.
It has already sent requests for information to various companies, financial institutions and agencies, both local and international.
“We are still trying to decide how to handle situations where some of the arms suppliers have paid fines or entered into plea agreements with prosecuting authorities in other countries,” Seriti said.
The deadline for submissions to the commission is July 30, which can be extended if necessary. However, some high-ranking officials have apparently been calling the commission to find out whether their names have cropped up in the submissions that have already been made.
The M&G has established that, after a shaky start, the commission’s new legal team appears happy that it will be able to work independently, because it will be divided into five teams. Each team will consist of junior and senior professionals who will tackle different tasks in their groups.
One step forward, two steps back
President Jacob Zuma stunned the nation when he announced an independent commission of inquiry into the arms deal in September last year.
The move came after a court bid by retired banker Terry Crawford-Brown to force the government to appoint an independent inquiry into allegations of corruption relating to the multibillion-rand arms purchases.
In October, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe announced that advocates Vas Soni and Sthembiso Mdladla would be key evidence leaders in the commission. Nothing much happened for months after that.
In May this year the appointed secretary to the commission, Mvuseni Ngubane, allegedly committed suicide in his garage.
In June, the press was informed that Soni and Mdladla were being dropped from the commission. A new legal team was announced last week. — Glynnis Underhill