It is a case which reads like crime fiction.
A former president of the Law Society and his son flee South Africa days before they are due to hand themselves over to the Hawks. They stand accused of fleecing vulnerable South African clients out of sums of money sometimes estimated to total R1-billion. The two leave behind their wife and mother and set up a new life in Australia, where a Sydney newspaper finds them living in splendour in a multimillion-rand mansion – and attempting to start practising law once again.
For more than three years, the case of Ronald and Darren Bobroff has seemed like one more infuriating instance of South African crooks getting away with the proceeds of their alleged misdeeds. But this week, the arc of the moral universe appeared to bend ever so slightly more towards justice when the NPA announced that its Asset Forfeiture Unit had obtained a court order to claim more than R100-million of the Bobroffs’ money.
That cash is sitting in accounts in Israel’s Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, having been moved overseas by the Bobroffs over years in an attempt to avoid paying their mounting South African creditors.
The bank’s suspicions were aroused by Darren Bobroff’s 2017 attempt to transfer almost $7-million (over R107-million at the current exchange rate) to an Australian bank account. The Israeli bank immediately froze transactions in the Bobroffs’ accounts due to the “reasonable likelihood” that the funds in question were the proceeds of crime.
Now, that money may be coming home – but the Bobroffs, characteristically, have indicated they will not be taking the forfeiture order lying down. A notice for leave to appeal has been filed.
Ronald Bobroff and his son Darren’s Rosebank-based legal firm, Ronald Bobroff & Partners, specialised in personal injury claims. The lawyers presented an enticing offer to clients: no win, no fee. But clients signing up with the Bobroffs often did not realise just how astronomical that fee would turn out to be.
The Bobroffs’ fees were calculated at an hourly rate, and regularly exceeded the fee cap determined by South Africa’s Contingency Fees Act. The lawyers have admitted in the past that they did not keep accurate records of time spent on cases, seemingly making their bills to clients little more than an exorbitant thumb-suck. In other cases, it is alleged the Bobroffs stole all or most of the compensation clients were due from the Road Accident Fund (RAF).
Because the Bobroffs’ clients were often people who had been badly injured in car crashes, they were frequently individuals in desperate need of any kind of pay-out.
And their alleged victims were many.
Among them: former Bafana Bafana footballer Eric September, who contracted Ronald Bobroff & Partners to act for him after a 1994 car accident left him with head, leg and spinal injuries and curtailed his sporting career.
September claimed that R1.4-million in compensation was paid to his lawyers from the Road Accident Fund in 1999, with City Press subsequently confirming that the RAF finalised the claim in 1999.
But a letter from Bobroff told September in 2002: “We have never received any monies from the RAF in this matter.”
September was not in a position to forcefully advocate for his rights: by 2002 he was in prison, serving what would be an effective 10-year sentence for the rape and murder of his wife.
Other clients were vulnerable in other ways.
Christine Maree, a 79-year-old Pretoria widow who had to have one of her legs amputated as a result of medical negligence, was overcharged by the Bobroffs by more than R1-million.
Yasmin Motara, a 32-year-old Springs teacher who lost her job in 2009 after a horror car accident, was awarded R6.5-million by the RAF in 2015. The Bobroffs were entitled to R400,000 in fees, but they took R1.2-million.
The heat around the Bobroffs began to burn more intensely in 2016. In that year, the North Gauteng High Court concluded there was sufficient evidence against the two men to strike them from the roll of attorneys.
In a scathing judgment, Judge Natvarial Ranchod found that the two men had “persisted in using every possible avenue to delay, frustrate and avoid facing up to the serious charges of a practice-wide conduct of overreaching clients, contravening the Contingency Fees Act by relying on unlawful common law contingency fee agreements, making clients sign several different fee agreements with a view to using the one that was later the most advantageous to the firm, and other unprofessional, dishonourable and even fraudulent conduct”.
To this rap sheet, the judge added the probability of “evasion of VAT and income tax”.
Judge Ranchod expressed particular disapproval of their behaviour due to the seniority of Ronald Bobroff within the legal profession: at the time of being struck off, Bobroff was an attorney with 40 years’ experience and a former president of the Law Society.
On 19 March 2016, the Bobroffs fled SA, days before they were due to be arrested by the Hawks on fraud charges.
Bizarrely, Ronald Bobroff’s 68-year old wife Elaine – described by the South African Jewish Report as an “unassuming and tireless community worker” – was left to face the music alone, and was promptly arrested on charges of fraud and money-laundering. Charges were subsequently dropped.
The two men fled to Sydney, Australia.
In their new homeland, they came to the notice of the Australian public in August 2018, when Australian newspaper The Sun-Herald published a front-page story featuring a photograph of a bleary-looking Ronald Bobroff answering the door of a mansion in the swanky Sydney suburb of St Ives in his pyjamas.
The headline read: “Spies, Lies and St Ives: Two lawyers lying low in their $2.5-million North Shore home are on the radar of international police, battling allegations of fleecing clients in South Africa”.
A subsequent report by the Sydney Morning Herald found that in addition to the palatial St Ives home, the family also owned three companies and two apartments in Sydney as of August 2018.
Ronald Bobroff, who told a journalist he was “living on the smell of an oil rag” in his R25-million Sydney home, was allegedly looking to practise law in New South Wales at the time. Darren, meanwhile, was found to have registered as the director of a property company called REB Properties.
Throughout the scandal, the two men have maintained the kind of Stalingrad defence that would make former president Jacob Zuma envious.
The Bobroffs claim they are innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever and allege they are the victims of a vast conspiracy by Discovery Health Medical Scheme due to their attempts to expose Discovery’s reluctance to cover clients injured in car accidents. (Discovery strongly denies this.)
They say they fled to Australia not to avoid criminal charges, but due to credible threats against their life.
The Bobroffs maintain a website, updated as recently as June 2019, which purports to expose “the facts not the fiction as to what’s really behind the relentless vendetta by the multi-billion rand public company Discovery Limited, its highly paid legal army and their proxies on Ronald Bobroff, Darren Bobroff and RBP Inc”.
One of the defences raised by the Bobroffs has been that not one former client has attempted to claim money from the Attorneys Fidelity Fund, which reimburses clients’ money misappropriated from attorneys.
However, the lawyers privately settled with a number of clients, and others took them to court. In one case, the court found that a woman named in court papers as Ms De la Guerre was overcharged by the Bobroffs by more than R200,000. In another, the firm was made to refund a client almost R850,000.
The Bobroffs have also launched extraordinary personal attacks on journalists covering their alleged crimes: particularly Moneyweb’s Tony Beamish, who has worked tirelessly to expose them.
The NPA has celebrated the forfeiture order granted against the Bobroffs’ Israeli funds as “the result of excellent cooperation between both the South African and Israeli authorities” – while noting that the Bobroffs’ leave to appeal still has to be considered before funds can be repatriated.
But bringing the Bobroffs’ money home, while a promising step forward, only begs the question more forcefully: when will the two men themselves be extradited to face the criminal charges they have so far evaded? DM