On Wednesday morning, news that axed communications minister Dina Pule had been appointed to the parliamentary portfolio committee on transport seemed to be a sign that Pule would escape lightly from the parliament’s ethics watchdog investigation. But that afternoon it emerged that the ethics committee was in fact issuing Pule the maximum penalties available. And even if these seem light, a criminal investigation is likely to follow. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Up until her firing by President Zuma in July, Dina Pule’s shenanigans had been hogging the front page of the Sunday Times for over a year. Wednesday would have been a good day for the Sunday Times, because the findings of Parliament’s ethics committee vindicated the paper’s major allegations against the minister. The victory will be doubly sweet for the newspaper thanks to Pule’s attempts in April to frame the Sunday Times allegations against her as a “highly sophisticated plot”. At the heart of the matter for Sunday Times journalists, Pule claimed, were “business and political interests related to the multi-billion rand set-top-box tender”.
But Parliament’s ethics watchdog has found that the Sunday Times’ claims against Pule were essentially correct. Pule did abuse her position by failing to disclose that she was in a relationship with Phosane Mngqibisa, who then benefited from their relationship to the tune of a R6-million Cape Town ICT Indaba contract and a number of trips overseas.
The only aspect of the Sunday Times’ claims that the parliamentary panel failed to validate was that Pule had breached the MP’s Code of Conduct by receiving a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes as a gift from Mngqibisa and not disclosing them, which would be contrary to paragraph 7F of the Code. This dictates that “gifts and hospitality from a source other than a family member or permanent companion” must be disclosed; the panel found that there was “not sufficient evidence to prove the allegation”.
Pule’s fate was considered by a nine-member multi-party panel, chaired by ANC MP Ben Turok and appointed by the Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests. Releasing the panel’s findings to the media on Wednesday, Turok stressed that the matter was a “difficult case” which had involved five days of hearings and seven witnesses. However, he emphasized, “the panel was unanimous right through”, and the final decision was unanimous both by the panel and by the wider ethics committee.
After the hearings, the panel took further days to deliberate and produce a report. The reason for this extended duration, the panel reported, was threefold: Dina, Dina, and department officials.
The first reason was that the abuse of Pule’s position began in 2009, when she was still the deputy minister of communications, so the panel had a goodly length of time to investigate.
The second reason was the “persistent denial of any wrongdoing” by Pule. Pule appears not to have given an inch in this regard. Under oath, she denied having a relationship with Mngqibisa. She denied that the Department of Communications paid for Mngqibisa’s travel or accommodation overseas at any point.
But the panel saw travel forms that reveal in 2009, Pule and Mngqibisa travelled together to Monterrey, Mexico, on the department’s dime. In the documents, Mngqibisa is described as Pule’s “companion or spouse”. There was also the damning testimony of Pule’s former personal assistant Tsakane Mahlaule, who said in a sworn affidavit that Pule and Mngqibisa had travelled together, and shared hotel accommodation, in Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Washington and New York City – all during June and July of 2011 alone.
“The weight of the evidence combined,” the panel’s report notes, “reflects that Hon. Pule and Mr Mngqibisa had a relationship from 2009 when they went to Monterrey in Mexico until at least July 2012.”
As the evidence stacked up, the panel gave Pule an opportunity to rectify her statement, made under oath, that Mngqibisa was not her spouse or partner and that the DOC had never paid for his travel. Pule declined this opportunity “and continued to deny the relationship with Mr Mngqibisa despite being fully aware that she was misleading the Panel.”
The third reason the report took so long to produce was because of “the apparent lack of cooperation by certain officials from the DOC”. There were some department officials who ignored the panel’s summons to Pule’s hearing. Others – named as Sam Vilakazi, deputy director general, administration in the DOC, and Themba Phiri, acting deputy director general, policy – were found by the panel to have presented evidence that was “unreliable and untrustworthy”. It will be interesting to see what individual sanctions await Vilakazi and Phiri.
The panel’s unanimous findings are damning. The MP’s Code of Conduct, paragraph 16, indicates that a breach of the code has taken place when a member “wilfully provides the Registrar with incorrect or misleading details”. This happened when Pule concealed, and later denied, her relationship with Mngqibisa. This became material because “the concealment of the relationship by Hon. Pule enabled Mr Mngqibisa to gain improper financial benefit”, as Pule did not disclose his financial interests. Specifically, the panel found, “Mr Mngqibisa, through Hon. Pule’s influence, benefited improperly by receiving R6-million for his company and enjoyed the benefit of the DOC paying for his overseas trips and accommodation”.
So what’s the punishment for this kind of wrongdoing these days? Well, for a start, don’t use the word “punishment”; apparently that’s not the right vibe. “The sanctions recommended herein are not meant to be punishment, but meant for behavioural and conduct correction”, the ethics committee advised.
The sanctions, rather, are the harshest permitted in terms of parliamentary rules. If they are accepted by the National Assembly, Pule will be publicly reprimanded in the National Assembly; she will receive a fine equivalent to 30 days salary; the suspension of privileges for 15 days; and she’ll be excluded from any parliamentary debates or committees during this period.
If you think these penalties don’t seem sufficiently onerous, you’re likely not alone. But Turok, for one, disagrees. “My most important asset is my integrity,” he told journalists on Wednesday. “A reprimand in the House by the Speaker is a severe blow to the reputation of that person.”
Turok also confirmed, however, that some of Pule’s actions are “criminal in nature” – including perjury – and that the panel has recommended that both the SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority carry out a further criminal investigation.
What happens to Pule now? Well, she’s still an MP. Parliament is currently in recess, but Turok said that when plenary resumes, “we’ll see what role exactly she wishes to play”. We already know one of the roles she might play, though, since Pule was appointed to the parliamentary portfolio committee on transport on Wednesday, seemingly coincidentally, in terms of timing.
“It seems that the ANC has sent Dina Pule to be a back bencher on our transport portfolio committee,” DA shadow transport minister Ian Ollis tweeted on Wednesday morning. “Fun times ahead!!”
There is, however, another option, which is that Pule could resign altogether as an MP. If she were to take this course of action she might be able to evade the public censure and the fine, though she would not escape a criminal investigation.
The DA’s shadow police minister, Dianne Kohler Barnard – a longstanding thorn in Pule’s side – expressed her party’s satisfaction with the panel’s findings, saying in a statement that the DA was “pleased” with the decision to impose “the strictest possible penalties available to Parliament in this case.
Turok told journalists that regardless of media perceptions, he believed that the majority of MPs were incorruptible. Making the point that such corruption was not merely a South African phenomenon he pointed to the UK parliamentary expenses scandal, which saw a number of MPs end up in jail.
If there’s a silver lining to all of this it’s that MPs from across the political spectrum were able to work together smoothly and decisively on the ethics panel to adjudicate on the conduct of a governing party politician. “We wish to emphasise that public representatives are accountable for their conduct and must behave with integrity at all times,” the ethics committee scolded. Let’s hope Parliament is listening. DM
Photo: Dina Pule at Mangaung conference, 18 December 2012 (Daily Maverick)
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall