The report by Neo Africa will come under scrutiny when whistleblower and former Limpopo Education general manager of budget Solly Tshitangano takes his unfair dismissal fight to court. In its report, Neo Africa cleared senior department officials of irregularities relating to the EduSolutions contract – a conclusion not shared by other investigations.
A legal expert warns that criminal charges could be brought against Neo Africa in terms of corruption legislation, should sufficient evidence emerge that it did not report corruption uncovered during its probe into allegations made by Tshitangano about the EduSolutions deal.
Neo Africa was initially commissioned in March 2011 at R1.7-million to look into the appointment and absconding of Tshitangano. It was later paid R2.2-million in July that year to look into allegations made by Tshitangano about procurement and operational irregularities relating to learner teacher support materials (LTSM), and procurement irregularities in the financial years 2008/2009 and 2009/2010.
In addition, another whistleblower has made allegations about bribes allegedly paid in 2007 by Neo Africa, formerly Neo Solutions, to public works officials in Gauteng to secure a R23-million contract. On the strength of these two instances, Corruption Watch has asked that an investigation be launched into all Neo Africa’s tender dealings with the government.
Sunday paper City Press has revealed that there are two tape recordings, which voice analysts say contain the voice of Neo Africa head Vivien Natasen, talking about R3-million he had set aside to pay public officials. He also talks about how he intends to ask the official with whom he is dealing more money out of the deal.
One of the recordings is in Corruption Watch’s possession, after the whistleblower approached it with a complaint.
Natasen and the Gauteng government have denied allegations that Neo Africa paid bribes to officials, or that were any irregularities in the contract. Natasen, who is a qualified chartered accountant, has denied that he had relationships with any officials named in the recordings and has questioned the tapes’ authenticity.
Education Department report
David Lewis of Corruption Watch said the report by Neo Africa into the Limpopo Education Department “played a pivotal role in sanitising the tender given to EduSolutions”.
Neo Africa’s report has since been contradicted by Gobodo Forensic, which was employed by the National Treasury to look into the deal, as well as by independent legal expert Pat Ellis, and investigations by the Special Investigating Unit, to name just a few.
Steven Powell, the managing director of ENS Forensics, the forensics arm of leading law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenberg and a corruption expert, warns that researchers, senior staff and the chief executive of an auditing or forensic company can face a maximum 15-year jail sentence, or even fraud charges, if there is evidence that they did not disclose corrupt practices or wasteful expenditure.
“If an auditing or forensic company is proved to have covered up and concealed corrupt activities, [it] can be prosecuted under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act,” said Powell. “The difficulty will come with proving that the company involved was not simply incompetent or hopelessly negligent, lacking the resources to conduct a proper investigation.”
It could well be that government officials may use less recognised firms because they knew they didn’t have the capacity to conduct a proper investigation, he added.
Limpopo has continued to use Neo Africa, which has a number of business interests including in a taxi recapitalisation programme, for its forensic work. A report by the company recently implicated two top officials in the provincial Education Department in the irregular appointment of a consultant days after he resigned from the department. His three-year contract was signed in 2008.
Audit or forensic companies that give a clean bill of health to a department or company, despite being aware that offences have been committed, can also find itself guilty of fraud, relating to “fruitless and wasteful expenditure”, according to Powell.
Details not adding up
Neo Africa may have to explain why it did not interview Tshitangano when it investigated his allegations against the department. It may also have to explain how it came to be employed to investigate his absconding on 4 March 2011, when he only allegedly absconded on 13 April of that year. Tshitangano claims he was locked out of his office.
Powell said in terms of present sentencing guidelines for corruption violations, a mandatory 15-year jail term is applicable, where the value exceeds R500 000.
Neo Africa is described in a press release as operating in various sectors, including information technology, security and safety, transport and aviation, eventing, property and facilities management, travel, hotels, environmental management, fuels and energy, and consulting in the private and public sectors.
Lewis said Corruption Watch would strongly advocate for an investigation into Neo Africa’s dealings with the government. “It appears that senior people in the company have been engaged in questionable conduct with public officials. As we have seen with the Limpopo textbook scandal, this is happening at huge cost to the public service, and particularly to the most disadvantaged sectors of the population who rely on public goods and services,” he said.
The anti-corruption organisation has handed the information at its disposal to the relevant authorities.