South Africa


Top eight culprits in biggest corporate fraud named, including Jooste and La Grange; Hawks still badly behind

Top eight culprits in biggest corporate fraud named, including Jooste and La Grange; Hawks still badly behind
Former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste appears before several committees in Parliament on September 05, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. Jooste made his first official public appearance, since his abrupt resignation in December over accounting irregularities at Steinhoff. (Photo by Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste and former CFO Ben la Grange, who had told MPs they knew nothing of accounting irregularities that led to the company’s share value collapsing, are named in the PwC forensic audit among eight individuals implicated in fictitious and irregular transactions of over €6-billion.

On Tuesday, Steinhoff insisted on confidentiality, privacy and privilege. That it got there is a blow for transparency as probes into what’s seen as the biggest corporate fraud are underway in South Africa, Germany and The Netherlands.

In early September 2018, former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste told MPs: “When I left Steinhoff on the 4th of December (2017), I was not aware of any accounting irregularities,” adding that it was “sad” that colleagues and people had lost money. Lawyered up and sticking to the I-didn’t-know script, Jooste blamed others.

At the end of August 2018 ex-chief financial officer, Ben la Grange had begun his appearance before the same four parliamentary committees, sitting together – finance, public service and administration, trade and industry and public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) – by saying:

I do not think I did anything wrong”, adding that he was “deeply saddened by events and all the money lost”.

On Tuesday, both Jooste and La Grange were named in Parliament as being among the eight individuals the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) forensic audit had identified as central to irregular and fictional transactions. The two were named alongside two other Steinhoff executives – Dirk Schreiber and Stéhan Grobler – and four others: ex-Steinhoff Europe CFO Siegmar Schmidt, Jean-Noel Pasquier, Geneva-based ex-banker Alan Evans and Davide Romano.

This disclosure came only after an instruction in terms of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act to Steinhoff CEO Louis du Preez, who until then had invoked European data and privacy laws. He complied, and stayed on message when approached by journalists for further comment on the individuals after the meeting:

I’ve answered a specific question from Parliament. I will not speculate further on that.”

But DA MP Tim Brauteseth had not minced his words.

Time will show we have been lied to (as MPs) and a group of executives knew about this for a long time. When (ex-board chairperson and business tycoon Christo) Wiese told us it was a bolt out of the blue, this may prove to be completely inaccurate.”

The collapse of the Steinhoff share value has not only left the company, spread across the globe, in a precarious position, but also wiped out R15.6-billion of government workers’ pensions and social savings that the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) had put into Steinhoff on the back of previously glowing asset and performance assessments.

It was this that had MPs pushing for accountability and transparency, particularly as there now was a forensic audit report. And proceedings in other jurisdictions such as The Netherlands should not be allowed to hinder this, it was argued. Or, as public service and administration committee chairperson Joe Maswanganyi put it:

We are not a province of the Dutch. That was in 1652. We are now a sovereign state.”

Until instructed by MPs to tell, all Steinhoff was saying about the findings of the PwC forensic audit released on 15 March was:

A small group of Steinhoff Group former executives and other non Steinhoff executives, led by a senior management executive, structured and implemented various transactions over a number of years which had the result of substantially inflating the profit and asset values of the Steinhoff Group over an extended period.”

Or, as it was put a few pages later in the official presentation:

The PwC investigation found a pattern of communication which shows the senior management executive instructing a small number of other Steinhoff executives to execute those instructions, often with the assistance of a small number of persons not employed by the Steinhoff Group.”

The same eight names are also under scrutiny by at least one of the regulators, Daily Maverick confirmed from Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) Commissioner Rory Voller.

He had, during the earlier committees meeting, declined to name those the CIPC was looking into, even when MPs had asked, due to confidentiality agreements Steinhoff had solicited in return for responding to a compliance notice to name individuals it had identified as having been involved in falsifying accounting records.

Ditto, Financial Sector Conduct Authority (Fisca) investigation and enforcement executive Brandon Topham:

Our regulations on confidentiality do not allow us to talk…”

But Fisca acted speedily once the PwC forensic audit became central in Tuesday’s meeting of the four parliamentary committees. Before the meeting of committees was done at just before 2pm, Fisca had subpoenaed Steinhoff for the PwC forensic report. Du Preez confirmed this to journalists after the meeting.

Fisca issued as summons for the production of the report. We will deal with that,” he said, adding that legal advice would be sought.

That forensic audit report, Du Preez had told MPs earlier, was available in a read-only electronic format to the Steinhoff supervisory and management boards, while he as CEO had the only printed version. It was 3,000 pages, but ran to 15,000 pages with all the annexes.

Steinhoff board chairperson Heather Sonn in arguing against the release of the PwC forensic report said it was legally “privileged” as it would allow the company to go after directors as well as in the context of various legal proceedings. Du Preez added that while the company was “fully co-operative” with regulators and law enforcement agencies, none has had access to the full report.

But finance committee chairperson Yunus Carrim had urged the regulators, as well as the Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), to follow the law to obtain copies of the PwC forensic report.

While the Hawks and NPA on Tuesday indicated they had waited for the report, it was unclear what actions they actually had taken since the report was released on 15 March. Neither answered MPs’ questions about this; neither was it clear whether they would apply to gain access. Said the NPA Serious Commercial Crimes Unit Advocate Mpho Dubada:

As soon as we receive the (PwC forensic) report, we will fast-track this matter.”

The Hawks, it again emerged on Tuesday as it had done already at the end of August 2018, do not have any in-house forensic audit capacity – and the five investigators it had allocated to the Steinhoff investigation actually were doubling up on other investigations.

Hawks boss Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya told MPs the focus of their Steinhoff investigation over the past almost 18 months had been on a single fraudulent transaction:

We were almost on the verge of securing the attendance of the person, then realised there was more than one transactions.”

DA MP Alf Lees expressed what many of the MPs across the party political spectrum thought:

I am flabbergasted… This is the biggest corporate fraud in the history of South Africa and (the Hawks) traced one transaction that was not concluded and no one had been charged.”

Until the day before the 8 May elections, the Hawks and NPA have been told to submit progress reports to the committee chairs every Friday by noon.

In a joint statement the four chairs of committees, Carrim, Maswanganyi, trade and industry committee chairperson Joan Fubbs and Scopa chairperson Themba Godi, expressed their concern that Jooste had not co-operated with the PwC forensic probe into financial irregularities at Steinhoff when he was CEO.

The committees asked why (Jooste) had avoided the investigations, if he had nothing to hide,” their statement said, adding: “The committees are appalled that he is still a free man, seemingly without shame or a care in the world.” DM


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