/ 30 November 2012

Did arms firm Thales pay Maharaj’s bill?

Mac Maharaj denied that defence company Thales paid a Swiss lawyer to stop investigators from accessing his wife's account.
Mac Maharaj denied that defence company Thales paid a Swiss lawyer to stop investigators from accessing his wife's account.

Thales, the French defence company that paid bribes to President Jacob Zuma's financial adviser Schabir Shaik and allegedly made payments to his spokesperson Mac Maharaj, is alleged to have helped to fund Maharaj's attempt to stop the Scorpions from getting access to his wife's Swiss bank records.

This allegation emerges from a new dossier of documents obtained by Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and DA MP David Maynier.

Maharaj, through his lawyers, said: "The allegations are scandalous and untrue and, ostensibly, emanate from a dubious source."

Maharaj appears to be referring obliquely to Ajay Sooklal, the former attorney for Thales, who is now embroiled in a dispute with the arms company over payment for his long-running representation of Thales during the Shaik trial and the aborted prosecution of Jacob Zuma.

The lawyer for Thales, Peter Kemp, was more direct, accusing Sooklal by name of being responsible for leaking the information and breaching attorney-client privilege.

"He'll go down," Kemp warned, accusing Sooklal of using underhanded tactics to bolster a claim of R55-million against Thales.

Maharaj's Swiss initiative
In a written response on behalf of Thales, Kemp did not respond to specific questions about the alleged funding of Maharaj's Swiss initiative to block disclosure of his wife's account.

Kemp stated: "Thales maintains the position it has held since the outset of this issue: we are co-operating fully with authorities and strictly do not comment on a legal matter."

Sooklal declined to respond to the allegations, saying the matter was now under private arbitration and would be dealt with there.

The De Lille-Maynier dossier contains a subpoena that Sooklal issued out of the South Gauteng High Court in October. It called on the acting national director of public prosecutions, advocate Nomgcobo Jiba, to supply material relating to the Shaik, Maharaj and Zuma investigations.

According to information supplied to De Lille and Maynier, Jiba resisted the subpoena, based on the argument that she was being drawn improperly into a civil dispute.

Attached to the subpoena is a copy of the July 1996 contract between Thales subsidiary Idmatics and one of Shaik's companies, Minderley Investments, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The Sunday Times disclosed the agreement a year ago.

The contract promised Shaik 1.2-million French francs (about R2.3-million), half of it payable on the award of the transport department's tender for bar-coded national driver's licences to the Idmatics consortium, which included Shaik's Nkobi group, and the other half after the licence contract was signed.

Also attached to the subpoena are documents from the Swiss district attorney's office that show that Shaik's front company was simply used as a conduit to channel the Thales money to an account held by Maharaj's wife Zarina.

The M&G last November confronted Maharaj with detailed questions drawn from the same document.

The department of transport – where Maharaj was minister – managed the tender, which was signed off in February 1997, but it was awarded by the State Tender Board.

The Swiss documents – dated December 17 2004 – reflect the Swiss authorities' positive response to a request for legal assistance by the Scorpions, who asked for the banking records of Minderley Investments and Maharaj.

The information disclosed by the Swiss about the Minderley transactions appeared to show Maharaj and Zarina had lied to the Scorpions in the course of their so-called section 28 interviews, conducted in June 2003.

Witnesses in such interrogations – which are conducted in camera – are denied the right to remain silent and the right not to incriminate themselves.

However, the evidence obtained this way may not be used against them – except where it shows that the witnesses knowingly gave false testimony, an offence that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

A year ago, the M&G blacked out a story of how new evidence concerning offshore payments that Maharaj and his wife Zarina had received through Shaik appeared to contradict their section 28 testimony.

This followed a warning from Maharaj's lawyer that disclosure of the record of a section 28 interview, without the permission of the national director of public prosecutions, also constituted an offence carrying a maximum 15-year sentence. The M&G decided not to disclose the content of the interviews and sought permission from Jiba.

She refused such permission, despite the fact that Maharaj himself had attached the transcripts to a 2006 high court bid (later abandoned) to have the Section 28 provisions declared unconstitutional – and despite key aspects of the Maharaj's testimony having been published in 2007 by City Press.

Maharaj has refused to respond to allegations that he lied to the Scorpions, and a year ago laid criminal charges against M&G editor Nic Dawes and journalists Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer, claiming we were guilty of a crime by being in possession of such information.

The case is still under consideration by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

Swiss process
In July 2005, when the Scorpions informed Maharaj of the information received from Switzerland, he intervened in the Swiss process to challenge the legality of the release of his wife's bank records.

Now an unsigned memorandum attached to the De Lille-Maynier dossier alleges that Thales paid for this intervention.

It states: "Advocate Phillipe Neyroud was instructed by Moynot to be the official instructing counsel in Switzerland to defend Maharaj and Shaik (Thales paid the fees for the Zurich lawyers through Neyroud)."

This is denied by Maharaj.

The Moynot referred to was Pierre Moynot, the head of Thales in South Africa at the time. Neyroud is a prominent Swiss commercial crime lawyer who represented Thales in a major case relating to the payment of illegal commissions on the sale of French frigates to Taiwan.

Neyroud said that Bar rules precluded him from commenting in any way.

Third party
What emerges from the De Lille-Maynier dossier is that there was correspondence in 2007 between a Swiss lawyer, Gaudenz Domenig, and Shaik's South African lawyer, Reeves Parsee, which was copied to Neyroud.

The exchange sought a mandate from Parsee as to whether Domenig should, on behalf of Minderley, jointly oppose the use of the Swiss bank records "in an investigation relating to Maharaj" following the intervention of a "third party" in the form of Maharaj.  

Domenig noted that this would require Shaik to deliver security for costs and a deposit for Domenig's fees.

Parsee could not be reached to establish what ultimately transpired.

Meanwhile, Maynier and De Lille have called for the investigation of Maharaj to be "revisited in the light of the evidence filed in the Sooklal matter".

Their statement noted: "The most important document that has emerged from this litigation is the agreement between Idmatics and Shaik … this agreement may not have been available to the NPA before."

The M&G put questions to Jiba asking what steps were taken to open or reopen a criminal investigation based on the documentation disclosed in Soeklal's subpoena.

The NPA had not replied by the time of the M&G deadline.

* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.