/ 30 October 2018

Mail & Guardian suspends political editor

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The Mail & Guardian has suspended its political editor while an independent investigation is done into allegations of a conflict of interest with Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa (Prasa).

The decision comes after the M&G came into possession of the results of an investigation into tenders awarded by Prasa. This investigation, done by Werksmans Attorneys, has yet to be formally released.

“The M&G has decided to suspend its political editor, Matuma Letsoalo, to ensure that a full investigation can be done by an independent attorney,” said M&G Editor-in-Chief Khadija Patel.

The Werksmans investigation focuses on a tender awarded in 2010 to a joint venture that included a company of which Letsoalo was a director. Kgomomorareng Travel was awarded the tender for travel management services, and was then responsible for booking all local and international travel for the rail utility.

Werksmans concluded that the joint venture “did not submit a bid and should not therefore have been considered for the tender, let alone awarded same”.

While the initial tender was for the venture to receive a commission based on a percentage of what it booked, this was changed to a set amount of R350 000 a month. Werksmans concluded: “The amendment of their appointment (and particularly the fixed monthly fee payment) negotiated and agreed to by Prasa favours the supplier to Prasa’s detriment, financially and operationally.”

In the report, the investigators note that Letsoalo was a director of Kgomomorareng from 2009 until he resigned in April 2012. This therefore covered the time of the tender. A footnote to this says: “Letsoalo is a news editor for the Mail & Guardian, who commissioned an article regarding Prasa on or about 8 July 2016.”

That article was commissioned by Letsoalo, and written by a freelancer. “Politicians fall out over Prasa chief executive fiasco” can be accessed here.

This was around the same time that the M&G first found out about the Werksmans investigation, and the allegations that his company had been involved in a dubious tender.

Their thesis was that the article published on July 8 — which touched on the spiralling costs of the Werksmans investigation — had been influenced by Letsoalo’s business relationship with the railway utility.

Letsoalo vehemently denied that this was the case. Then editor Verashni Pillay conducted an investigation into the allegations. This found that Letsoalo had declared his involvement in Kgomomorareng, his 2012 resignation, and his wife’s continued involvement in the company. The M&G’s editorial code requires that reporters disclose their business interests so any possible conflict of interest can be discussed and managed so as to ensure accurate and fair reporting.

Pillay concluded that Letsoalo was not in breach of this editorial code. Werksmans had asked the M&G to keep the investigation confidential, and no formal charges were laid. There was also no evidence that Letsoalo’s business involvement with Prasa had in any way influenced the reporting on the utility.

A decision was therefore made not to take the issue any further.

Letsoalo was, however, told not to report on Prasa, or commission any articles on the utility, because of his wife’s continuing involvement with the utility.

No new evidence has come to light to change this conclusion, but, with the Werksmans report in its final stages, the M&G decided to suspend Letsoalo last week.

This was done to allow a further, independent, investigation to be conducted.

The investigation will look at whether any ethical transgressions took place, and if any further action needs to be taken.

The M&G is aware of an investigation published by the Daily Maverick, based on the Werksmans report. It is important that media investigate each other and help to raise the standards of journalism.

“The M&G’s responsibility is to its audience and to telling the truth. If anything new should come to light in the new investigation, this will be acted upon,” Patel said.