Frustration reigned at the R2.3-billion VBS Mutual Bank heist court case after another postponement, with one of the accused’s lawyers arguing that his client was suffering financial prejudice because of the state’s alleged ineptitude.
The angst followed state advocate Hein van der Merwe asking for a postponement of about eight weeks, saying he needed a racketeering certificate from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) head, Shamila Batohi, for prosecutors to arrest three additional suspects.
In October, van der Merwe had brought a remand application for more charges and three new accused to be added, but indicated on Tuesday that a racketeering certificate, in line with the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, needed to be secured from Batohi for more charges to be laid.
“We [the NPA] finalised the indictment at the end of November last year … Unfortunately, because of positive Covid-19 cases and people who formed part of the original panel [for the racketeering certificate application], she [Batohi] was unable to convene the panel to hear the application to have the additional charges added,” Van der Merwe told the court.
He spoke at the Johannesburg specialised commercial crimes court, sitting in Palmridge, during the seven remaining suspects’ appearance in the VBS matter.
The seven accused are Tshifhiwa Matodzi, the former VBS chairperson; Andile Ramavhunga, the former chief executive; Phophi Mukhodobwane, the former treasurer; Sipho Malaba, who was an auditor at KPMG; Lieutenant-General Avhashoni Ramikosi, who was a non-executive director; as well as Ernest Nesane and Paul Magula, both of whom were representing the Public Investment Corporation as non-executive directors on the board.
In October, accused number three, Phillip Truter, VBS’s former chief financial officer, was sentenced to an effective seven years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to, among other charges, receiving millions of rands from the alleged bank heist and falsifying financial statements. Truter agreed to turn state witness.
Van der Merwe assured the court that the racketeering application panel would sit “within the next two weeks”, and that the state would be able to proceed with additional counts and accused.
The prosecutor added that the state was not ready to provide the defence with copies of the docket, because this would reveal the identities of the three new suspects.
“The indictment that we want to serve has been finalised; we do not wish to add any additional accused [besides the ones] we are applying for,” van der Merwe said.
Accusations of financial prejudice
But the postponement plea drew the ire of Rudzani Netshiavha, who opposed the state’s application on behalf of his client, Ramikosi, who is accused number six.
Netshiavha argued that the continuous delays in the case were financially prejudicial to his client, saying that it was against the interest of justice.
Netshiavha further chastised the state for allegedly concealing Truter’s separate appearance in court, when he pled guilty, with the lawyer accusing prosecutors of ineptitude that has led to long delays since the first arrests were made in June last year.
“Is there anything new that we are hearing today that the state did not say on 8 October, except that the state has to wait for a [racketeering] certificate?
“This delay is caused by the state and the state alone. The accused [Ramikosi] has not played a part in the delay. The state did not even have the decency to let us know that there will be activities around accused number three [Truter],” Netshiavha charged.
“That is very much suspicious. I’m saying here today that there is nothing new that the state has submitted that it did not submit on 8 October.”
Netshiavha also slammed van der Merwe’s use of Covid-19 positive cases as reasons why the racketeering certificate could not be secured.
“This case did not start during [the] Covid-19 [outbreak]. In fact, the accused persons were arrested and charged during Covid-19.
“This is not another postponement; it is … a financial prejudice [to my client],” the lawyer said.
The other six legal representatives rose to say they did not oppose the state’s application.
Magistrate Phillip Venter noted Netshiavha’s objections, but granted the postponement application and set the matter to sit again on 26 March.
The seven are accused of depleting the now-defunct mutual bank of almost R2.3-billion by allegedly falsifying VBS’s financial statements for the fiscal year ending March 2017, to show that the business was solvent when, in fact, it was not.
Matodzi, Ramavhunga, Truter and Mukhodobwane, according to the indictment, allegedly stole R262-million in 12 days during March 2017, “by creating fictitious credits” in 35 VBS accounts.
All the accused are out on R100 000 bail each and will return to court in March.