Forensic investigator Leo Saunders has thrown down the gauntlet to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), uMngeni-uThukela Water (UUW) and water minister Senzo Mchunu over what he alleges amounts to attempted sabotage of criminal cases brought against former board members, executives and service providers to UUW.

Saunders is the managing director of Integrity Forensic Solutions (IFS), which began an investigation that in turn led to the criminal indictments when he was engaged by Mhlathuze Water in 2022. Mhlathuze was headquartered in Richards Bay prior to its merger last year with Umgeni Water to form UUW.

Now, Saunders is alleging “sabotage and constitutional delinquency” by entities who had previously appointed IFS to carry out various forensic investigations.

He claims that not only UUW, but also the eThekwini municipality, have withheld invoices and improperly terminated their contracts with IFS. In both cases, IFS claims to have valid agreements to assist the police and prosecution in order to take the cases up to, and through, the trial stage.

These agreements made provision for the affected entities (UUW and eThekwini respectively) to carry the cost of the investigation and prosecution support by IFS.

In correspondence with the NPA, Saunders’s attorneys allege, “the conduct of these organs of state aims to prevent politically exposed persons implicated in the forensic audits/investigations from being held criminally liable for their actions.”

Worse still, Saunders implicates the NPA itself in what is at best incompetence and at worst complicity in the mismanagement of their own prosecution cases.

This includes, he alleges, a failure to protect him as their key service provider and expert witness, as well as, in the case of UUW, a formal complaint against the NPA prosecutor for allegedly introducing serious errors into the criminal indictment.

His lawyer’s letter takes direct aim at the prosecutor leading the UUW cases, Advocate Reenai Ramouthar, and alleges that  “at a minimum, the conduct of Ramouthar amounts to gross dishonesty, and or incompetence.”

In a terse response, the NPA said that “regarding the issue of the alleged conduct of prosecutor Adv Ramouthar, we take complaints against prosecutors seriously and we will ensure that it is investigated by an impartial panel and that the case proceeds despite such internal investigation.”

eThekwini and Zandile Gumede

We will return to Saunders’s complaints about the NPA, but it is important to note that his claims may impact not only the prosecution of the UUW matters, but also the high-profile racketeering and fraud case against former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede and 21 others.

This case, where IFS performed the key investigative and forensic work, relates to a R320-million refuse removal contract.

Since the beginning of the Gumede trial last year, lawyers for the various accused have focused attacks on the legality of the appointment of IFS by eThekwini’s City Integrity and Investigations Unit (CIIU) to conduct the investigation.

For instance, in mid-July 2023 Advocate Jimmy Howse (representing former deputy head of Supply Chain Management Sandile Ngcobo) argued that the CIIU had violated the processes of selecting a company to investigate this matter. “The court should consider the investigation unlawful and irregular,” he urged.

While IFS had already been appointed to a panel of forensic investigators by the municipality, there were some legitimate questions about the unusual speed with which the CIIU converted an anonymous dossier dropped off at the municipality into a deep investigation led by IFS.

Gumede has the support of the Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC (which controls the eThekwini council) and has previously alleged that her arrest is the work of political opponents using state machinery to destroy her political career.

Yet, at the other side of the scale, the counterattack against the IFS investigation appears just as questionable.

In early July the head of the CIIU, Mbuso Ngcobo, who had presided over the appointment of IFS, resigned effective 31 July, citing death threats.

In short order the former provincial police commissioner of Mpumalanga, Thulani Ntobela, was appointed as the interim head of the CIIU from Monday, August 7, apparently by using the municipal manager’s special powers to make fixed term appointments in “exceptional circumstances”.

Less than two weeks into his new job, Ntobela unilaterally terminated the IFS contract without engaging IFS but instead writing to the Hawks stating that “this unit will no longer fund the project that has no ending.”

On 6 Feb 2024 Saunders went to court to challenge this decision.

In his affidavit he avers that “IFS submits further that the inescapable conclusion is that this decision was taken for an improper purpose or ulterior motive… The effect of the Impugned Decision is intended to effectively interfere with the [Gumede] criminal prosecution and, if it is allowed to subsist, will have that desired effect.”

He adds that “Mr Ntobela has not sought to engage with IFS or with me at all… This is apart from his cryptic email to our attorneys received on the 19 September 2023 advising them that he welcomed any possible court action – “Your email is acknowledged and I will be gladly waiting for summons”.

“IFS was denied any hearing at all… I can therefore only conclude that Mr Ntobela is acting in an improper manner, motivated by an ulterior motive in ensuring that IFS’ continued participation in the pending criminal trial is halted… I am a key witness in that trial, and it is not exaggerating the position to state that the prosecution will collapse without my evidence on the forensic underpinnings of the corruption charges pending against the Ms Gumede and former municipal councillors.”

Ntobela, who ran private investigation outfit the iFirm before his eThekwini appointment, has enjoyed a positive reputation, but his credibility in this case has been undermined by the municipality’s failure to deal with Saunders’s allegations.

The city has so far failed to deliver an answering affidavit and has dragged its feet on making the legally required disclosure to IFS of the documents underlying Ntobela’s appointment and his decision to terminate their contract.

There were certainly issues Ntobela could have raised with IFS, given that its contract was repeatedly extended; it appears that the Hawks – and even the NPA – largely outsourced their work to IFS at the city’s expense.

But Ntobela’s unilateral cancelation without regard for the consequences for the Gumede case, as well as the city’s failure to provide an explanation, both give credence to Saunders’s allegations of a conspiracy.

And now that view is bolstered by what Saunders claims is a similar modus operandi adopted by UUW.

The playbook at UUW

Like at eThekwini, IFS was appointed to a panel of forensic investigators by Mhlathuze Water – in this case with effect from November 2021.

Saunders says on affidavit that on 14 December 2021 he was contacted by the Head of Risk at Mhlathuze, Bongi Skosana and informed that a whistleblower had alleged that the chief executive, Mthokozisi Duze, along with other senior employees of Mhlathuze had committed misconduct in respect of the procurement of goods and services.

IFS were appointed to investigate allegations that the CEO, the chief financial officer and the head of legal acted in concert to circumvent tender processes in favour of a law firm, Mhlanga Inc, to the prejudice of Mhlathuze to the extent of R37-million.

IFS compiled a forensic report which confirmed that the allegations were credible and the board of Mhlathuze subsequently mandated IFS to register a criminal case and to support the Hawks and the NPA in bringing the findings of the report to a court ready state.

It was alleged that the suspects were assisted by three members of the board of Mhlathuze in their attempt to evade accountability. When these efforts could not stop the investigation, Duze also procured the assistance of the Director General (DG) in the KZN Office of the Premier, Dr Nonhlanhla Mkhize.

The DG was allegedly party to a plot to intimidate the chairperson of the board of Mhlathuze and to induce her to stop the investigation. 

On 30 August 2022, eight accused were arrested by the Hawks in respect of the cases flowing from the findings in the report compiled by IFS, including the DG. Subsequently, further accused were joined to the prosecution.

According to Saunders, things changed after Mhlathuze merged with UUW in September 2023.

Saunders alleges that Skosana, the risk manager who was the liaison point with IFS, was instructed to take leave, not to liaise with IFS during her leave and not to continue with the investigations into the conduct of Duze, Mkhize and others until after the 2024 elections.

He states that she resigned under duress, following which, in October 2023, all contracts with IFS were suspended pending UUW obtaining legal advice on the validity of these contracts.

Saunders notes that UUW obtained two legal opinions, both of which confirmed the validity of the appointment of IFS.

UUW nevertheless terminated the contract while IFS was and still is required to provide consultancy and advisory support to the DPCI and NPA, as well as to lead evidence in the upcoming criminal trial.

Correspondence between IFS and UUW shows that at one point the water utility tried to rely on the dispute between eThekwini and IFS as justification for its own actions in terminating the relationship.

On top of the threat to the UUW-linked criminal trial, it is understood that there are pending claims against UUW totaling close to R100-million. These flow from the cancelation of two contracts based on investigations done by IFS.

Following the dismissal of IFS, UUW’s defence of these civil claims is now also potentially in jeopardy.

In an affidavit for the purposes of laying a charge of subverting the administration of justice, Saunders alleges that UUW’s termination of the IFS contract “seeks to assist the accused in the matter to evade accountability and is a contravention of inter alia the provision of the PFMA”.

In letters to minister Mchunu, lawyers for IFS said IFS had brought these matters in detail to the attention of the chairperson of the board of uMngeni-uThukela and the acting chief executive, but UUW has persisted with the termination of IFS services and has resisted paying outstanding invoices.

IFS lawyers requested that the minister “take note that a reasonable apprehension exists that a concerted and collective effort is being made by persons on various levels at uMngeni-uThukela to sabotage the ongoing criminal case against the 16 accused”.

They pleaded with Mchunu to initiate an investigation into the conduct of his water board.

So far both the UUW board and the minister have failed to act on these allegations. Neither responded to questions from amaBhungane.

Back to the NPA

The NPA appears to have embraced the work done at Mhlathuze by IFS, allocating specialist prosecutors to oversee the investigations conducted by the SAPS and IFS as a Prosecutor Guided Investigation. The lead prosecutor in the case was Adv. Reenai Ramouthar.

Following the arrests in the case, the court ordered that a final indictment be presented on 29 June 2023.

Due to the seriousness of the case, the Office of the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions in KwaZulu-Natal, (DPP) was to receive a presentation of the indictment on 27 June 2023, prior to it being presented at court.

In a formal written complaint to the NPA, Saunders states that “on or around 20 June 2023, I learnt that Ramouthar did not have a grasp of the substantive facts of the case despite being briefed on these facts on several occasions by IFS and the investigation team of the SAPS from March 2022 to 29 June 2023.

“This was despite the fact that she had participated in pre-trial processes related to the matter i.e. applications for section 205 subpoenas, applications for search warrants and warrants of arrest and bail applications. Ramouthar guided and took decisions in respect of these processes.”

Saunders writes that Ramouthar’s boss, Specialised Commercial Crime Unit head Advocate Bulelwa Vimbani-Shuma, then agreed to let Saunders compile a draft indictment and submit an electronic copy to Ramouthar and the prosecution team for consideration and input. 

“On 22 and 25 June 2023 respectively I submitted the first draft and then final contribution to the indictment. Ramouthar disregarded these contributions and only started drafting her contribution to the indictment on 25 June 2023.

“Ramouthar’s first contribution to the indictment was incongruent with the state’s evidence and the substantive facts of the case. This indictment was so poorly drafted that Advocates Vimbani and Naicker agreed that it would be an embarrassment to present same to the Office of the DPP for consideration a mere two days prior to the indictment being due at court.”

Saunders says Vimbani agreed with him and it was Saunders’s draft that was presented to the DPP representative, who ultimately authorised the indictment subject to minor adjustments, on 27 June 2023.

“This indictment was then submitted to court on 29 June 2023. l and others from the investigation team had sight of the indictment.”

Saunders then alleges a bizarre series of events in which he alleges that Ramouthar, after the fact, replaced the approved indictment with a backdated version of her own.

He claims that “the condition of the backdated indictment was as poor if not worse than the previous indictment that Ramouthar had compiled on 25 June 2023. The charges do not accord with the evidence at the state’s disposal, incorrect charges and evidence is attributable to the accused, the conduct of the accused is confused and conflated, among other things.”

Pulling the plug

In parallel with these developments, Saunders wrote to the National Director of Public Prosecutions to raise the alarm about having the plug pulled on his trial-linked contracts.

His letter of 15 November 2023 noted that a modus operandi had developed whereby, when IFS made findings against politically exposed persons and criminal processes were underway, the legality of IFS’s appointments would be questioned and contracts suddenly terminated.

“Certain officials from the SAPS and the NPA have communicated the view that, in the circumstances, this is a civil matter between IFS and the respective organs of state. We humbly differ with this view… The conduct… is criminal, unconstitutional and seeks to undermine the very constitutional mandate of the offices of the NPA and the SAPS.”

The NPA head office was clearly alive to the problems that the termination of IFS created for their cases, both in respect of eThekwini/Gumede and UUW, and began negotiations with IFS over a contract and service level agreement.

Head office gave authorisation on 10 November for the NPA to source and pay for further services from IFS, but Saunders alleges that KZN officials continued to be obstructive.

IFS complained that its first invoice under the new agreement with the NPA was rejected by the KZN officials and the company’s lawyers wrote to the NPA giving notice it was intending to sue.

More seriously, in his 10 April complaint to the NPA, Saunders alleged that “in January 2024, Ramouthar was instructed by Adv Vimbani to mitigate the risk associated with not being able to access the support of IFS in the circumstances and to commence processes to secure the continued assistance and support of IFS… To date, Ramouthar has never made any contact with IFS in this regard, despite the matter being adjourned for 15 April 2024 in the Durban High Court.”

Summarising his concern about Ramouthar’s conduct, including with respect to her alleged creation and backdated substitution of a flawed new indictment in the UUW case, Saunders wrote, “at a minimum, the conduct of Ramouthar amounts to gross dishonesty, and or incompetence and will potentially bring the office of the NPA into disrepute if it becomes public knowledge. The conduct of Ramouthar also has the potential to expose the case under subject to serious legal challenges from the accused.”

On 26 April 2024 attorneys acting on behalf of IFS wrote to the DPP KZN and KZN SCCU head to put the NPA on terms.

IFS’s lawyers pointed out that “despite the serious allegations made against Ramouthar, she remains the prosecutor in charge of the criminal proceedings. It must be kept in mind that our client will be required to present evidence at the criminal proceedings, and consult with the prosecutors handling the matter, which includes Ramouthar. Therefore, it cannot be definitively said that Ramouthar will remain unbiased when dealing with our client’s participation in the criminal matter now that she is aware of its complaint against her.”

The letter demanded an undertaking by no later than close of business on 03 May 2024, that the NPA would properly consider the complaint against Ramouthar and thereafter initiate an investigation into Ramouthar’s conduct.

Extraordinary response

On 10 May the office of the State Attorney, on behalf of the NPA, delivered an extraordinary response.

On the matter of the complaint against Adv Ramouthar, made by way of sworn affidavit, the State Attorney, on behalf of the NPA, stated the following:

“The prerogative to take disciplinary action or not against any employee vests with the employer. This prerogative is obviously exercised within the confines of the employer’s disciplinary code and procedures and in line with the provisions of the Labour Relations Act. Accordingly, your client has no right to tell our client when, and for what misconduct, our client must institute disciplinary action against any of its employees. In any event, client’s view is that Advocate Reenai has conducted herself in accordance with reasonable and acceptable standards of behaviour that are expected of her in the workplace and has complied with the disciplinary code and procedures at the workplace.”

The letter also contained blatantly contradictory expressions regarding the rendering of prosecution services to the NPA by IFS.

On the one hand, it made an implicit threat to obtain contractually agreed services (essentially the expert testimony by Saunders in court) by way of a compelled subpoena and invited IFS to proceed with legal action over its disputed first invoice to the NPA. On the other hand, it sought a meeting with the sole purpose of finalising the Service Level Agreement.

Implications

These allegations go to the heart of some of the problems bedeviling the NPA: firstly, it’s lack of internal capacity and resultant outsourcing culture (along with its inability to manage those outsourced services); secondly, its lack of a clear policy with respect to handling complaints about prosecutorial misconduct.

It is disturbing that the NPA sought to deal with allegations that potentially impact on the integrity of a trial as a matter of labour relations, as if this were some minor workplace issue.

We put it to the NPA that:

Saunders put a version on record under oath alleging that Adv Ramouthar was either incompetent or devious or both;

He made direct allegations concerning the implications of this for the prosecution and supported his version with reference to the passage of the drafting of the indictment.

The knee-jerk response that Adv Ramouthar “has conducted herself in accordance with reasonable and acceptable standards of behaviour that are expected of her in the workplace” appeared to prejudge the matter.

We wrote that “it is clear that this version deserves proper engagement and rebuttal – or confirmation. Either Mr Saunders is a charlatan attempting to hold the NPA to ransom to cover up his substandard work and his exploitation of his appointment – or else it is the NPA that is corrupt or incapable and attempting to hide this by bluster and threat. There is a third possibility: that both are true.

“In every case, it would represent an abrogation of the NPA’s duty were it to refuse to deal with the challenge posed by Mr Saunders.”

The NPA’s special director for legal affairs, Adv Mthunzi Mhaga, wrote back.

He stated: “kindly note that the majority of your questions relate to both investigative and evidential issues on a matter that is sub judice in view of the prosecution underway in court, therefore we are not able to respond in detail to many of the questions you have raised…

“Regarding the issue of the alleged conduct of prosecutor Adv. Ramouthar, we take complaints against prosecutors seriously and we will ensure that it is investigated by an impartial panel and that the [criminal] case proceeds despite such internal investigation.”

Asked for detail about the composition and terms of reference of this impartial panel, Adv Mhaga replied that “this is an internal investigation that the employer will be conducting against the prosecutor and therefore by its nature an internal matter that we are not at liberty to discuss in detail in the media.”

Both the Gumede and UUW cases are politically fraught and subject to major external pressures. The MK Party’s new dominance in KZN is going to ramp up that pressure exponentially.

Saunders’s evidence suggests the NPA is at best ill-equipped to weather this storm and at worst, willing to bend with the prevailing winds.

Watch this space.

The post Forensic investigator’s challenge to NPA could rock key KZN cases appeared first on amaBhungane.

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