‘Dead man’ plan for Block in dock

Three Northern Cape ANC heavyweights and their alleged business benefactor will rely on a "dead man defence" when they answer to charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering in the Trifecta trial, which began in Kimberley on Monday.

Provincial ANC chairperson John Block was joined in the dock by two fellow members of the party’s provincial "top six", Yolanda Botha and Alvin Botes, as well as property mogul Christo Scholtz.

Block, Botha and Botes are accused of receiving kickbacks from Scholtz and his Trifecta property group between 2006 and 2010 in return for influencing provincial departments, either directly or indirectly, to rent office space from Trifecta.

But the accused have all distanced themselves from the allegations by citing the role played by Scholtz’s empowerment partner in Trifecta, Sarel Breda, who died in a plane crash in March 2009.

The prosecution alleges that the departments bent procurement processes to favour Trifecta. They also allege that Trifecta defrauded the departments, which committed to pay for bigger and more expensive office space than they were in fact leasing.

Under the microscope
The seven leases under the microscope would have cost the provincial government R57-million more than they were worth had the alleged fraud gone undetected.

In his not-guilty plea, Scholtz claims that Breda took “full control of the day-to-day running of Trifecta” and that he, Scholtz, confined himself to the “financing of the group”.

Scholtz claims that Breda negotiated the lease agreements with the departments, advanced loans to Block, Botha and Botes, and offered them empowerment stakes or employment in the company.

Scholtz will have to explain why he, as the financier, did not pay more attention to how and why Breda spread Trifecta largesse and why, after Breda’s death, Scholtz continued and even augmented the benefits that allegedly flowed from Trifecta to Botha in particular.

The prosecution’s star witness, Ebrahim Crouch, worked in the provincial roads and public works department when Block was its MEC, and continued after Block left in 2003.

Crouch will testify that Block, who became the ANC’s provincial chairperson in 2005, asked him to “see how he could help” Breda to secure leases with government departments and kept up the pressure on Crouch until the leases were signed.

"An instruction"
Crouch says he saw Block’s requests as “an instruction” even after Block stepped down as MEC because Block was “a person with authority in the province”.

Block allegedly received payments of R1.4-million, shares in a Trifecta subsidiary and a R350 000 property renovation in return for leaning on department officials to favour Trifecta.

He claims that he was not employed by government between 2004 and 2008 when the leases were signed “and had to fend for himself for an income”. The benefits were not kickbacks but legitimate payments for consultancy services he rendered to Breda, Block argues.

Botha is perhaps the most exposed of the accused – she signed off on five of the seven leases as head of the social development department.

She is charged with contravening the Public Finance Management Act, which obliges accounting officers to safeguard public money. The prosecution alleges that she overruled her tender committee and unilaterally gave Trifecta what it was seeking, or even more generous terms.

Botha allegedly received a 10% stake in the Trifecta group, a R1.3-million renovation of her Kimberley home and R15 000 in cash – all after Breda’s death.

She claims that the provincial government no longer employed her when the benefits accrued to her, as she had been an MP since May 2009.

Scholtz claims the renovation was a “loan” and that Botha has repaid a “substantial amount”.

Botha’s credibility took a knock in 2011 after she failed to declare the benefits to Parliament. In 2012, a parliamentary ethics committee investigation found that they “accrued from a generally corrupt relationship” with Trifecta.

Botes, now provincial social development MEC, was employed by Trifecta between May 2006 and April 2009. His family trust received a 10% stake in a Trifecta subsidiary.

He says Breda hired him as a "consultant". Like Block, he will have to explain the exact nature of the consulting work he did for Trifecta. – Additional reporting by Douglas Mthukwane

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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.

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