/ 21 November 2013

Arms deal: Shrinking legal team impairs probe

Arms Deal: Shrinking Legal Team Impairs Probe

The Arms Procurement Commission has failed to renew the contracts of its internal legal team tasked with the next phase of identifying those criminally liable in the arms deal investigation.

The move by the commission to axe six skilled legal staffers who would have undertaken this critical phase has dented its credibility, say former team members.

This phase of the commission would identify who will be called to give evidence at the public hearings.

"The staff would need to be around for this part of the hearings," said a former legal staff member. "It points to the fact that they won't be looking at criminal wrongdoing."

In a memo issued to staff by the chairperson of the commission, Judge Willie Seriti, in January this year, he stated that criminal aspects of the investigation would be the "second phase" of the public hearings. The internal legal team would tackle this task, he wrote.

The commission's internal legal team, which once consisted of 10 people, now consists of two legal members and a research assistant who is studying law.

Second agenda
Three senior legal figures – commissioner Judge Francis Legodi; senior investigator and respected attorney Mokgale Norman Moabi; and principal legal researcher attorney Kate Painting – also quit their jobs at the commission in the past year.

Moabi said in his resignation letter that there was a "second agenda" running at the commission in addition to its mandate to unravel the truth of the 1999 arms deal. The purported second agenda is said to be the protection of ANC officials and others implicated in the corruption scandal, including President Jacob Zuma.

Moabi was clearly not surprised by the developments at the commission. "Those whose contracts are not renewed … their time is up, and they know that they have not been part of the core team," he told the Mail & Guardian this week.

Fanyana Mdumbe, described as an "academic" advocate by colleagues because he has not done his pupillage, remains at the commission.

As head of the legal team, Mdumbe is said to maintain tight control over all the evidence and investigations, and to brief evidence leaders.

The only remaining legal investigator is attorney Riena Charles, who returned to work at the commission nine years after she was acquitted on fraud and corruption charges.

"Why would you fire people who were investigating the second phase? We were meant to look at those who might have taken money, which is the crux of the investigation," said a former team staffer, who asked not to be named.

Although some former legal staff told the M&G they sometimes found it difficult to obtain evidence to work on at the commission, they still hoped they would succeed in unravelling the truth behind the R70-billion arms deal.

The documents manager, who was a legal professional, has also been given notice, and her role has been taken over by Samkelo Hlatshwayo, who is said to be related by marriage to Seriti. The commission has refused to deny or confirm she is his wife's niece.

The commission has now had its lifespan extended to November 2014, with a further six months to complete its report. It has allegedly asked for another R20-million to complete its work, but this could not be confirmed by commission spokesperson William Baloyi.

Baloyi said one of the main reasons for cutting staff, apart from cost- cutting, was that a massive amount of documentation received from state departments on the Strategic Defence Procurement Package had been analysed and completed.

This claim is disputed by a former legal staff member. "That's not true. Who analysed it? The only question you have to ask yourself is how [they]can carry out [their] mandate without the investigators."