/ 27 November 2012

Public protector finds Block not guilty

Northern Cape finance minister John Block.
Northern Cape finance minister John Block.

An investigation by public protector Thuli Madonsela into of allegations of wrongdoing relating to the sale of a piece of land by the Sol Plaatje municipality cleared Northern Cape finance minister John Block and Northern Cape Premier Hazel Jenkins.

Block and Jenkins were alleged to have influenced the deal to benefit a company called Fastpulse Trading, allegedly linked to Block.

In two reports titled, "False alarm", relating to the allegations against Jenkins and "Disturbing rumours", relating to the allegations against Block, Madonsela stated that no evidence could be found that either official had breached the executive ethics code in their involvement in the deal.

Madonsela was asked to investigfate the deal by Cope's leader in the Northern Cape, Fred Wyngaard, after a Noseweek report in 2010.

The report featured allegations of a meeting between Jenkins, Block, Northern Cape ANC provincial secretary Zamani Saul, and municipal officials, where the sale of the land was allegedly discussed.

The land in question was sold to a property developer,Tremaine Crawford, in 2008 but the deal fell through when he did not pay the purchase price. The land was subsequently sold to Fastpulse.

Crawford then obtained an interdict prohibiting the Sol Plaatje municipality from continuing with the transfer of property to Fastpulse. The dispute was later resolved and Crawford was offered an opportunity to buy the land at the same price, in May 2010.

No evidence
At a press briefing in Pretoria on Monday, Madonsela said her office could find no evidence to support the allegation that Block and Jenkins had abused their office to sway the deal in Fastpulse’s favour.

There was also no evidence to support allegations that Block was linked to Fastpulse, she said.

Madonsela further refuted evidence given by a former property consultant, Mandy Bakker, that Block and Jenkins were directly involved in the deal. Bakker represented another potential buyer, who would have purchased the land from Crawford.

"Under the circumstances, Ms Bakker’s evidence does not constitute substance and support for the allegations that Block was involved in the land transaction between Fastpulse and the municipality," Madonsela said.

Violating ethics code
In another report released on Monday, Madonsela said President Jacob Zuma should consider reprimanding Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson for violating the executive ethics code.

Madonsela said the department's acting director general should recover about R150 000 Joemat-Pettersson incurred for return flights for her two children and their au pair from Sweden to South Africa in January 2010.

The minister travelled to Sweden on official business in December 2009. The trip was combined with a family holiday, which started on December 23, at the end of her official trip.

But Joemat-Pettersson had to cut the holiday short when she was recalled by the presidency. She returned on January 1 2010.

Paid for by the state
"The return trips of the minister's children and au pair were paid for by the state in violation of the provisions of paragraph 3.4 of chapter six of the Ministerial Handbook, in the amount of R151 878," Madonsela found in her report. 

Joemat-Pettersson's spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.

Democratic Alliance MP Lourie Bosman, who called for the probe, said Joemat-Pettersson should be fired.

"We do believe that the public protector's recommendation – that the president must 'reprimand' Minister Joemat-Pettersson for her 'improper and unethical' conduct – is nothing more than a slap on the wrist," Bosman said in a statement on Monday.

Congress of the People chief whip Dennis Bloem echoed the DA's call for the president to sack the minister.

The public protector also investigated whether the minister used public funds to pay for expensive accommodation at hotels while she was awaiting the allocation of her official residences in Cape Town and Pretoria.

Madonsela said Joemat-Pettersson "displayed a blank-cheque attitude towards public funds".

Joemat-Pettersson stayed at the 28A On Oxford Guest House from June 13 to July 11 2010, for R420 000, and at the Peermont D'Oreale Grande Hotel at a cost of R289 352.

"Therefore the conclusion, that her conduct amounted to reckless use of public funds was improper and unethical, is accordingly justified," Madonsela said.

Extra room
The minister's justification of the costs, that she needed extra room for her family, was however reasonable.

"She was entitled to family-sized accommodation considering the length of time she spent in hotels and guest houses due to inconceivable tardiness of the department of public works," Madonsela said. 

"However, Minister Joemat-Pettersson's defence of ignorance of the costs involved, though accepted, is a cause for serious concern as she displayed a blank-cheque attitude towards public funds."

The protector was scathing of former chief of staff Bafedile Bopape for the way she handled the minister's travel and accommodation expenses. Madonsela recommended action against Bopape for her "improper conduct which resulted in fruitless, wasteful and unlawful expenditure".

Bosman said the public protector was investigating tender procedures in the department.

"Her [Madonsela's] office has also confirmed that she will investigate further potential violations of the executive ethics code by Joemat-Pettersson resulting from what the DA considers to be her failure to effectively perform her ministerial duties," he said. – additional reporting by Sapa