/ 28 February 2020

Trolley tender causes Acsa eruption

Airport aerial shot (Delwyn Verasamy)
The health department confirmed on Saturday that 11 cases of the UK variant B.1.1.7 had been identified - eight in the Western Cape, one in KwaZulu-Natal and two in Gauteng. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Local businesswoman Morwesi More was walking through OR Tambo International Airport in 2018 when she noticed something odd about the uniforms worn by the trolley operators.

The name and colours on the uniforms — Plan B TEO —made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. A few months earlier her company, Plan B Consulting CC, had submitted a R6-million bid for the service. She had assumed that her bid was unsuccessful.

She asked one of the operators for more information and they confirmed that Plan B TEO belonged to Tshepo Madiba — More’s former employee, whom she had fired for allegedly stealing more than R3-million from her company.

More then asked Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) how it was possible for a company that was only registered after the tender had closed and had not appeared on the bid register managed to win the job.

Little did she know that her enquiry would uncover an audacious tender-rigging and fraud scam, involving Acsa employees and her former employee, which saw the tender increased by R10-million and ceded to the similarly named Plan B TEO.

“You know [at first] they said we’re talking nonsense,” she explained. “But I did not go away, I kept telling them that there was fraud.”

More said the tender’s project manager, Absalom Njoni, started looking into her complaint, but was shot dead outside his home after he had come back from work one evening. News of the manager’s death and its possible links to the trolley tender is something his family confirmed previously to the Mail & Guardian. But, to date, police investigations have not established any formal links, his brother Naphuel Njoni said.

A subsequent forensic investigation by George Fivaz Forensic and Risk (GFRR) revealed how two Acsa supply chain department employees, Shumani Netshivhodza and Makgoba Madiba, colluded with Tshepo to inflate and divert the contract.

But Acsa did not immediately act against the two. This is despite GFRR recommending, in their investigation report last August, that criminal charges be opened against the pair and Kriss Reddy, the senior manager who chaired the tender board that approved Plan B Consulting’s appointment and who also signed off on the cession to Plan B TEO.

The investigation

GFRR’s investigation report revealed:

• On November 2 2017 Netshivhodza and Madiba made contact with Tshepo — 11 days after the bid evaluation committee (BEC), in which they were members with knowledge of the budget available for the project, had resolved to award the contract to Plan B Consulting and advised him to increase the price from R8259359.43 to R18234314.50. The BEC memorandum, which was drafted on November 2 2017 and signed on November 22 2017, had already listed the award value as R18234314.50;

• On November 24 2017 Madiba then sent minutes of the BEC meeting to the local bid adjudication committee, requesting them to approve the award, and this was done at a meeting on 12 December 2017;

• On February 16 2018, Tshepo then submitted a fraudulent cession agreement between Plan B Consulting CC and Plan B Trolley Engineering and Operations CC, and signed both documents despite the fact that he had no authority to do so for Plan B Consulting CC;

• Three days later he concluded a service level agreement, on behalf of Plan B TEO, with Reddy, on behalf of Acsa. Reddy signed this even though there was no record of Acsa authorising the cession. Tshepo signed for both companies.

The report said: “Mr Reddy failed to confirm whether the closed corporation, Plan B TEO, was registered as a vendor on the Acsa supplier database and ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems, before signing the contract. Our investigation revealed that the entity was not registered.”

The report continued to say that “no sufficient evidence was uncovered” and that the logical conclusion was that if “Mr Reddy did not consciously conspire with Messrs Shumani Netshivhodza, Makgabo Anton Madiba and Tshepo Madiba to commit the crime of fraud and contravention of Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act”, then “he was extremely negligent”.

“His position is exacerbated by the fact that he is a senior manager with 30 years’ experience. He should have been more careful, and exercised with caution before signing contracts.”

The report also recommended that disciplinary action be taken against the airport’s general manager Bongiwe Pityi, an attorney by profession, for negligence and reckless execution of her duties when she signed fraudulent documents without applying her mind in ensuring that the documents were legitimate.

An Acsa spokesperson said the company had registered a criminal case last June, and had taken disciplinary action against two individuals: “This was in the form of a written warning valid for six months. One employee was cleared of wrongdoing in a disciplinary process. A further individual is no longer an employee and no disciplinary action could be taken against him.”

Internal power struggles

But internal power wrangles, politics, and factions inside the organisation have led to accusations of unfair and inconsistent treatment of employees.

Whereas Netshivhodza was able  to leave the company without facing disciplinary action, Acsa’s executive general manager for airports Andre Vermeulen was pushed into leaving over the debacle.

Internal Acsa documents and discussions show that Vermeulen left at the end of December after he was informed he would be charged for agreeing to a settlement with Pityi and Reddy. This resulted in a final written warning for the two, whereas Acsa wanted them to be dismissed.

Vermeulen reached a settlement with Acsa that saw him resign with a R4.8-million settlement, which included an ex gratia payment (a damages payment which Acsa paid but did not admit to).

Insider views and internal Acsa documents showed that Vermeulen was under considerable pressure from within to testify that Pityi and Reddy’s action led to a termination of the trust relationship with the employer, and that they should be fired. But he refused, arguing that legal advice from Acsa’s lawyers, as well as Acsa’s internal policy, indicated that the transgression did not warrant dismissal.

Two sources said Pityi is one of several employees being unfairly targeted for dismissal by Acsa chief operations officer Fundi Sithebe.

“Bongiwe is not the first person she seems to hate, there have been other instances where Fundi has overruled independent disciplinary enquiries to fire people,” said one source.

The other said: “Fundi’s real target in all the OR Tambo stuff is not really the corrupt individuals. Shumani, a procurement person running the trolley tender and another guy with a surname that I think is Madiba — the same surname as the person who owns the trolley company … together they colluded on the trolley tender and changed the contract figures and deceived the more senior people.”

But action against them had been slow, the source said.

On Thursday afternoon Acsa said that Netshivhodza is no longer employed by the company, while Madiba is suspended pending the completion of disciplinary processes.

The Acsa spokesperson said Sithebe refutes allegations that she intimidated and pressured Vermeulen, adding: “Airports Company South Africa completed a mutual separation agreement with Mr Vermeulen in terms of company policy and procedure. The company considers and concludes such agreements in circumstances where, collectively litigation may result in excessive legal and/or suspension costs; and an assessment of prospects of success.

“The COO and Mr Vermeulen had ongoing differences on a variety of matters. Ultimately this led them to mutually agreeing to a separation agreement. One legal opinion was sought and provided at a cost of R31500. The purpose for seeking this legal opinion was to understand whether the company was bound by the warnings issued and what recourse it had if any.”

Acsa employees who back Sithebe — who apparently has more than five grievances against her with new chief executive Mpumi Mpofu — say that she is being targeted because she is fighting corruption in the organisation.

Other dismissals

Earlier this month the M&G reported that Acsa overruled a disciplinary sanction by senior counsel Hamilton Maenetjie to issue a final written warning to three employees after they were found guilty of one of 12 charges they faced.

The employees, who were on suspension for 22 months, were charged for authorising payments of up to R14.9-million without prior approval and then seeking condonation as part of the process to regularise the payments in 2013.

In his sanction, Maenetjie said that the fact that Acsa had never punished anyone before for similar offences would make the three’s dismissal unfair and inconsistent.

The fact that Acsa’s own witness who argued for the trio’s termination was himself guilty of the same offence made the situation worse.

The M&G has seen documentation that shows that one of the trio was paid R2.9-million and another amount of R637661.72 in settlement. Acsa said it settled because there was no direct evidence linking him to the charges against him.

“Even where the company may have proven successful in so doing, a sanction of dismissal could not be guaranteed,” the company spokesperson said.