A top Free State official is embroiled in a conflict of interest scandal allegedly involving channelling millions in legal consulting business to his personal attorney and another lucrative contract to a firm controlled by his close “friend”.
It is also alleged that Sandile Msibi, who heads the Free State’s Department of Police, Roads and Transport, is using these companies for “witch-hunts disguised as disciplinary hearings” to purge staff who refuse to toe the line.
A departmental insider accused him and his chief director of corporative services, Norman Selai, of insisting on legal consultants for disciplinary hearings to “capture the department…” (See ‘Witch-hunts disguised as disciplinary hearings’below.)
According to the Public Servants Association, Msibi’s department – which controls a R1-billion annual budget – is the only one in the province to insist on outside legal representation at disciplinary hearings.
An amaBhungane investigation last year revealed that one of the law firms that landed lucrative legal work with Msibi’s department, Lebea and Associates Attorneys, has represented Msibi in private legal matters on two separate occasions.
According to departmental invoices leaked to amaBhungane, Lebea was paid R7-million by the department between 2013 and 2016.
Another beneficiary firm is Beetle Breeze Trading, which was paid more than R1-million by the department between 2014 and 2015 for legal services related to disciplinary hearings.
The company registration database shows that the sole director of Beetle Breeze is Agnes Puleng Tsupa, the wife of advocate Robert Tsupa, allegedly Msibi’s close friend.
However, Robert Tsupa, who also attended the disciplinary hearings, signed all Beetle Breeze invoices and emails to the department
In an email statement last year, Msibi defended the Polokwane-based Lebea, saying that it gave advice to his department on employment and construction law.
“They assist in investigating acts of misconduct, formulate charges and prosecute the disciplinary hearings,” he said.
However, the relationship appears to be closer than this. amaBhungane is in possession of a letter from Roxo Law addressed to Lebea regarding the transfer of property to the Msibi Family Trust, which refers to the trust as Lebea’s client.
When amaBhungane inquired about his relationship with Msibi last year, Justice Lebea, director of the law firm, said his company’s involvement was merely to inquire when the registration of the transfer of the property would take place, as there had been a long delay in finalising the matter.
Lebea added that his firm’s role was insignificant and that no payment was required. He said the service was extended to “members of the public who require basic legal advice”.
Msibi echoed Lebea’s explanation that he “merely asked” the law firm to make inquiries to Roxo.
Lebea and Msibi denied any conflict of interest or that the law firm had represented Msibi in a private matter.
AmaBhungane has also established that Lebea is representing the Msibi Family Trust in an illegal eviction case at the Land Claims Court.
According to the court file, one of Msibi’s former employees alleges that the family destroyed his shack and evicted him illegally from Msibi’s farm in Heilbron in the Free State.
Lebea suggested that the departmental sources making allegations against Msibi had an ulterior motive, in that they were facing disciplinary charges.
He said that amaBhungane’s questions reflected “a self-created and disingenuous perception of those department officials who believe that by attempting to discredit our firm and the HoD, charges of serious acts of misconduct against them will automatically disappear”.
According to amaBhungane’s source, Msibi’s relationship with Tsupa “goes way back,” as they both hail from Parys and are close friends.
AmaBhungane has established that Tsupa was a legal consultant at Dihlabeng (Bethlehem) municipality while Msibi was municipal manager in 2009. He also served as a legal consultant for Msibi’s current department before landing the job of municipal manager at Maluti a Phofung in QwaQwa in 2015.
Tsupa confirmed that he was hired as a legal consultant for the department, but denied any personal relationship with Msibi.
Beetle Breeze invoices obtained by amaBhungane show that Msibi’s department paid the company, despite certain irregularities.
- The submission of invoices that charge value-added tax, but include no VAT number;
- The use of an incorrect VAT number on a R128,000 invoice for which no VAT was charged;
- A claim of R10,628 on two separate invoices for transport costs to the same disciplinary hearing on the same day;
- A R48,000 claim for work at a disciplinary hearing dated September 6-7 2014 – a Saturday and a Sunday, sources said this would have never happened during a weekend; and
- Two separate R24,000 claims for the conclusion of the same disciplinary case.
Tsupa said that his company was not VAT-registered and errors committed in the invoices had been corrected with the department.
He refused to answer questions about other irregularities in invoices submitted by his company, saying that “client-service provider relationship prohibits me from answering such questions without written permission from the client”.
Msibi also declined to answer questions.
Initially, he asked the amaBhungane journalist to provide proof of being a reporter and the media house amaBhungane represented.
This was because he had noticed, “all these emails have been underlined by insults, slander and defamatory statements, aspersions being cast on my integrity and unfounded allegations being hurled at me personally as the head of the department”.
He added that it seemed to him that amaBhungane was being used by “dismissed and vindictive former employees of the department to besmirch and slander me and and the department by false and defamatory allegations under the guise of investigative journalism”.
‘Witch-hunts disguised as disciplinary hearings’
Since Sandile Msibi joined the Free State police department six years ago, sources allege he has dismissed more than 120 employees with institutional memory, replacing many of them with staff from municipalities where he formerly worked as a municipal manger.
These include Dihlabeng (Bethlehem), Ngwathe (Parys) and and Mangaung Metro (Bloemfontein).
The sources said Msibi’s industrial relations practices have created a toxic working environment and raised ire of the Public Servants Association (PSA).
The PSA’s Free State chairperson, Gehard Kootz, said the union had raised the issue of legal consultants taking part in hearings over many years.
“This is the only department in the province that insists on using outside attorneys for disciplinary hearings. We have raised the issue at the Bargaining Council and there was a resolution, which the department agreed to, but they don’t comply. We have now taken the matter to court,” said Kootz.
He said that under an agreement between unions and the government, “you may use an outside person when the case is complicated, but most of these cases are not”.
Departmental sources said the legal and human resources units are the hardest hit, as the bulk of the official’s work is given to outside law firms.
“There is a lot of corruption happening in this department and employees especially juniors are constantly asked to approve or turn a blind eye to dodgy contracts,” said one.
“Those who refuse and question management find themselves charged with all sorts of misdemeanours.”
The source accused Msibi of firing staff members he perceives as being against him and hiring “his cronies, some of them not qualified, without following proper procedures”.
“Although most employees win these disciplinary cases, the process is costly and can take years to finalise. Meanwhile, the lawyers are laughing all the way to the bank.”
According to invoices leaked to amaBhungane, the department paid out more than R700,000 between 2014 and 2015 on three separate disciplinary cases, which it eventually lost.
The invoices show that the law firms claimed for travel and accommodation costs, as all of them were based in other provinces.
The invoices also show that each law firm can put in different claims for mileage and accommodation, as there are no standard rates.
Charges for chairing or representing the department, at the hearings ranged from R12,000 to R14,000 per sitting.
In 2011, while Mangaung municipal manager, Msibi clashed with the South African Municipal Workers Union over his use of outside law firms in internal disputes.
According to media reports, protesting workers dumped raw sewage in the municipality’s head office and called for Msibi’s head for allegedly ignoring labour agreements.
Months later after the protest Msibi was unceremoniously removed from the municipal post after Samwu threatened ANC leader Ace Magashule that they would not vote for him as ANC provincial chair.
The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism produced this story. Like it? Bean amaB supporter and help us domore. Know more? Send us a tip-off.