Secretary to Parliament splurged millions ‘extravagantly’ on travel and luxuries

Secretary to Parliament splurged millions ‘extravagantly’ on travel and luxuries
Gengezi Mgidlana addressing the Plenary at the 36th session of the Committee on World Food Security.

International and local travel totalling almost R4-million in two-and-a-half years secured by iffy means. Blue lights used unlawfully, while even using Parliament’s cars for the occasional school run. Getting Parliament to pay for attending funerals, weddings and a fashion show, together with one’s better half. Unqualified personnel hired into management.

These are among findings against suspended Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana, and some of his staff, by the national legislature’s internal audit committee. The 247-page report, unsigned and undated but under Parliament’s logo, details much of what has caused ructions at the institution for over two years.

Parliament’s internal audit committee report into various claims of mismanagement and abuse of power by Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana was kept under wraps since its completion in late 2017. So tightly under wraps was it that even MPs of the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament in November agreed only to view it under supervision, without pen, paper or cellphones.

Then Mgidlana went to court to have this internal audit committee investigative report reviewed and set aside because, according to his affidavit, it violated his right to administrative justice under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, contained “serious and material flaws” and was “unlawful” – and he duly attached it to his papers filed in the Western Cape High Court. Mgidlana on Friday lost his bid for a court review.

Accordingly, the audit committee’s investigation is now a public court document in case 5835/2018. And it is scathing.

The internal audit committee outlines various contraventions of parliamentary policies and financial misconduct for which it recommends Mgidlana face action, including for receiving a just over R71,000 ex-gratia payment just months into the job and taking his wife along with him on travels.

Among the 15 issues dealt with it also details how staffers in the Secretary to Parliament’s office moved to comply with his requests, particularly travel, while management executives adapted, if not bent, the rules – and recommends (unspecified) action.

So Mgidlana, who earns some R2.8-million a year, effectively was “automatically” awarded a R30,503 study bursary, the audit committee said in its report, citing testimony by human resource executive Lizo Makele, because being part of the official procedure would have meant participating in a “process presided over by his juniors”.

And officials frequently allowed Mgidlana his pick of hotel of choice in contravention of the three-quote policy by Parliament. Or as the internal audit committee put it:

The quotation system was manipulated… probably in collaboration with the travel agent. There was evidence that a number of the STP’s (Secretary to Parliament’s) meetings overlapped into weekends. In some instances, there were no records of any invitations to such meetings.”

The probe was initiated in May 2017 by Parliament’s presiding officers, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Chairperson Thandi Modise. Over two years of workers’ grievances, which also saw the National Health, Education and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) lay a complaint with the public protector in July 2016, had reached the point of no return. The matter has caused Parliament public embarrassment, with Mbete defending her top official after sharp criticism by the DA and EFF in the Parliament budget vote debate in 2017.

It was this internal audit committee investigative report that led to Parliament officially announcing on 8 November 2017 that Mgidlana was suspended – he had been allowed to go on the special leave he requested in June 2017 – and would face disciplinary proceedings:

“… the presiding officers have decided that the recommendations and allegations made are serious and warrant that Parliament institutes a disciplinary process against Mr Mgidlana”, that statement said.

Mgidlana’s lawyer Kevin Kiewitz released a statement in response, saying:

My client is confident that he will be cleared and exonerated of all the allegations of wrongdoing…. We look forward to a fair process that will allow my client to clear his name.”

While Parliament’s internal audit committee report holds some surprises, it remains silent on other issues that have headlined the national legislature’s administration. It deals with the dismissal of one staffer and the demotion of another, the payment of just over R89,000 for a workshop that was never held, the appointment of a consultancy with links to Mgidlana and a rental dispute related to his resettlement, while raising the “incorrect publication/media statements by management which are deliberate”.

But it does not really deal substantially with the recruitment of the so-called bouncers, largely due to pending Labour Court action by members of Parliament’s protection services, which Daily Maverick understands is now set down for October 2018.

The report makes a firm statement on Mgidlana receiving an R71,484 ex-gratia payment just months into the job. Neither he nor the other 11 employees employed for less than three months should have received this payment, the report said. This was fruitless and wasteful expenditure for which the Secretary to Parliament should face financial misconduct action. That payment was meant to redress “historical injustices” related to incorrect calculations of performance bonuses and acting allowances. And it notes the presiding officers were under the impression this payment was part of solving the labour tensions at Parliament as Mgidlana never told them the ex-gratia payment would also go to management.

Much time is spent on Mgidlana’s travel in the two-and-a-half years since his appointment from December 2014, described as “extravagant”. Overall the Secretary to Parliament incurred R3.9-million on, according to the report: R1.4-million in air travel, R1.3-million in hotel accommodation, R651,000 for chauffeur or transfer transport, R330,000 on tours mostly on international trips, and R218,000 for car hire.

In late June 2017 Daily Maverick detailed many of Mgidlana’s travels, also including his wife and bodyguards – that protection has now been withdrawn, it emerges from the report – and other issues set for the committee’s scrutiny as the probe was under way behind closed doors.

Then Mgidlana argued he was a victim of “vilification” and subject of ongoing attacks on his character and integrity. That effectively continued the line of responses, often in official Parliament media statements, also to City Press and Sunday Times reports on controversies that have bedevilled Parliament’s administration.

Such dismissal of wrongdoing while fingering Nehawu for a smear campaign, as far back as May 2016 and as recently as June 2017 following the budget vote debacle, has been Parliament’s public stance in a series of media statements and briefings.

A similar approach had been taken to the March 2017 article in which Daily Maverick raised questions over the R1.8-million benchmarking trips following what appeared to be the rushed report on the trips. Then Thembani Mbadlanyana, who works in Mgidlana’s office with the title of executive assistant (research), argued against “mediocre” reporting and that travel was part of the Secretary to Parliament’s responsibilities.

That means where necessary he must have a car to move from point A to B, he must be in a plane, he must sleep in a hotel. All this is done according to the same policy that applies to everyone and given due recognition to different levels and approved cost containment measures.”

However, Parliament’s audit committee indicated otherwise.

The international benchmark trips were found to have been approved against institutional policy. While Mgidlana gave the go-ahead for four employees to go to Turkey at a cost of R505,992.96 and four to visit the parliaments of England and Scotland at a cost of R842,517.76, a subordinate official working in his office approved travel for six and five employees respectively at a cost of R879,816.56 to Turkey and R940,622.04 for the other legs. No approval from the presiding officers could be found for Mgidlana’s trip to Switzerland for an Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) meeting that happened at the same time.

There was “a culture of non-compliance” with Parliament’s travel policies, according to the report. In its analysis of 43 tips, it found on 18 there were “no records of any invitations relating to these travels…”, on 19 there was no indication that the required three quotations were obtained, on 10 Mgidlana picked his hotel of choice, and 26 of these trips overlapped with weekends.

While the report reflects Mgidlana’s dismissal of wrongdoings in several instances, it raises red flags high over Mgidlana’s trips with his wife, Lerato. The Sunday Times in June 2016 reported on Mgidlana’s travels, which his wife also highlighted on social media.

These trips included the 2016 wedding of Mbete, and attendance at an (undated) ANC lekgotla and (undated) ANC January 8 Statement, the governing party’s annual celebration of its founding to set its political priorities for the year. Other trips on which Mrs Mgidlana accompanied her husband included weddings, including Mbete tying the knot, funerals, and the inaugural isiXhosa music festival and fashion show.

According to parliamentary travel policy, a spouse, partner or companion may accompany an employee of Parliament at the expense of the institution, if the employee directly represents Parliament at an occasion in an official capacity and it is in the interest of Parliament for this to happen.

Some trips fell outside what could be regarded occasions: 15 of 19 trips were part of the ordinary day-to-day activities of Parliament’s top official, such as meetings. And some events may well be occasions, according to the report, but there are questions as to whether they related to the business of Parliament.

Certain events, such as the inaugural isiXhosa music festival and fashion show, do not seem on simple interpretation to be related to the business of Parliament,” the report said.

Only in three of 19 such trips was there evidence of an invitation to Mgidlana in his official capacity as Secretary to Parliament.

And while travel policy allows on reasonable grounds the use of one of Parliament’s cars – the presiding officers’ former vehicles were repurposed for international protocol use at the national legislature – that did not mean it was a given perk of the job to which Mgidlana was entitled.

According to the report, it all appeared to start off with a request for official transport between the airport and office while in possession of official documents, but then snowballed to also include trips to the dentist and school runs.

On one occasion the driver was asked to speed between 140kms/h to 160kms/p because the Secretary to Parliament was running late for a meeting with the deputy president. Even when there was no instruction to use blue lights in contravention of the National Road Traffic Act, the report said, Mgidlana did not stop this in line with his fiduciary duties.

There’s other stuff, including the appointment of Unathi Mtya as Parliament’s Chief Information Officer and bursary to study abroad, as reported by City Press in February 2017. At the time amid the parliamentary grapevine it was held that she actually did not have the qualifications set out in the official job advert. This has now been confirmed by the internal audit report:

Ms Mtya did not meet the minimum academic qualification requirements for her position,” it says, adding she had been “unfairly favoured” – and action should be taken against the interview panel chaired by Mgidlana.

The special bid adjudication committee also chaired by Mgidlana should be abolished, according to the report, as it duplicated the bid adjudication committee and “at no stage should the STP be a member of, or chairing, the bid adjudication committee”.

One claim dismissed is that the Secretary to Parliament did not have the required security clearance. Mgidlana did receive top secret clearance from the State Security Agency (SSA), the report said. However, it also pointed out there was actually no requirement for such clearance.

The report has found its way into the public domain as Mgidlana’s disciplinary proceedings are under way even as Parliament has soft-pedalled amid sensitivities around this matter.

Following the Western Cape High Court’s dismissal of Mgidlana’s urgent review application, Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo in a statement said the disciplinary action would continue:

Mr Mgidlana is facing charges that relate to, inter alia, the alleged breach of the Financial Management of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, breach of the parliamentary policies as well as the National Road Traffic Act.”

And it’s not over until the proverbial fat lady sings. DM


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