22 February 2024 | 03:41 PM

Public Investment Corporation: suspended COO’s R4.5m ‘suspicious transactions’

Key Takeaways

  • Forensic investigators acting on behalf of the state-owned asset manager, the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), have recommended reporting the suspended Chief Operations Officer, Vuyani Hako, to the police.
  • This follows a lifestyle audit triggered by a whistleblower report that uncovered “suspicious transactions” with transfers exceeding R4.5-million directed into Hako’s home loan accounts.
  • Confidential audit committee documents obtained by amaBhungane reveal that at least five whistleblower reports accusing Hako of nepotism and corruption were circulated before he was suspended in June 2022.

Forensic investigators appointed by the state-owned asset manager, the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), have recommended reporting suspended chief operating officer Vuyani Hako to the police.

This comes after a lifestyle audit, triggered by a whistleblower report, uncovered “suspicious transactions”, with transfers exceeding R4.5-million directed into Hako’s home loan accounts.

Hako, who occupies the fourth most powerful position in the PIC, was placed under precautionary suspension in June 2022 after allegations of misconduct were made against him. He remains suspended 18 months later.

At the time of his suspension the PIC, which oversees close to R2.6 trillion in assets, primarily of government employee pension savings, provided no detail about the nature of the allegations, merely stating that it was in the “best interest of both the employee and the employer to ensure that an independent inquiry can proceed unencumbered.”

Now, confidential board audit committee documents obtained by amaBhungane reveal that before his suspension the PIC received at least five whistleblower reports in which Hako was accused of nepotism and corruption.

The documents show that in response to the whistleblower reports, the PIC instituted various investigations, including a lifestyle audit by Fundudzi Forensic Services which uncovered a series of “suspicious” payments and transfers into Hako’s bond accounts beginning the month after he was appointed COO – in December 2020 – and continuing until November 2021. 

These payments – which according to investigators came from Hako and an in-law – went directly into Hako’s bond accounts to settle loans for two of his properties in East London and Centurion.

A report of the audit committee’s in-camera meeting states that when investigators questioned him about these payments Hako “failed” to explain the source of the funds.

As a result of these suspicious and unexplained transactions, Fundudzi recommended that the PIC lodge a criminal case against Hako in terms of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act.

The Act makes it an offence not to report suspicion of corrupt activity to the police.

The audit committee resolved to recommend Fundudzi’s forensic report and recommendations to the full board for adoption, its meeting minutes show.

In response to amaBhungane’s questions, the PIC would not confirm whether a case had been opened against Hako, nor did they provide clarity on other allegations made against him, saying only that the COO was “under precautionary suspension while the allegations against him are being investigated and are yet to be concluded.”

“Mr Hako remains a PIC employee and is entitled to the same protection of his rights as any other employee, including entitlement to confidentiality for any matter or process between the employer and employee,” said the PIC in an email.

“The PIC must follow due process,” it added, emphasising that “it would go against applicable policies and labour legislation for the PIC to publicly disclose any detail or make public comments about any aspect of confidential labour proceedings that are still underway”.

“Legally, this would undermine the PIC’s own case and therefore the PIC is not in a position to respond in further detail.”

Hako also declined to respond to detailed questions.

Forensic evidence

A confidential report on the proceedings of a board audit committee meeting in November 2022 sets out a summary of the forensic auditor’s case against Hako.

It states that in 2021 Hako paid off his home loans with Rand Merchant Bank for two properties bought in 2015 and 2018 using money he could not adequately account for.

Fundudzi Forensic Services, the company the PIC appointed to conduct a lifestyle audit on Hako, reported that Hako made repayments of at least R1.9-million for the two properties over a few months.

Over a period of six months, an additional R2.7-million allegedly flowed from accounts belonging to a relative of Hako’s by marriage.

Fundudzi said Hako “failed” to provide the source of the R1.9-million transferred into his accounts; he claimed that the payments made by his relative were for “the rental of his property based in Mthatha”.

But investigators said there was “no agreement and/or lease agreement detailing rental arrangements”.

Suspicious transactions

“The PIC should register a criminal case against Mr Hako in order to determine the source of the total amount of R4,521,905.00 paid and/or transferred into his bond accounts,” Fundudzi recommended.

Fundudzi emphasised that the payments were deemed “suspicious transactions and require further investigations in terms of section 34 of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act (PRECCA).”

In simple terms, Section 34 of PRECCA places a duty on the relevant individuals to report suspected or actual acts of corruption, fraud or bribery involving transactions of R100 000 or more. 

Estate agents consulted by amaBhungane said that the typical rent for houses in Fort Gale, Mthatha, where Hako reportedly claimed he had received R2.7-million in rental income, ranged from R13,000 to R15,000 per month.

This is significantly lower than the over R440 000 per month that Hako received and raises further questions about the explanation he reportedly provided to forensic investigators.

Source of funds?

A separate document, flagged as a “Report of Tax Crime”, was leaked to amaBhungane alongside internal PIC documents, though its origin is not clear, nor is it certain that it formed part of any PIC investigation.

The document speculates on the source of Hako’s extra cash, alleging that “it is very likely that … all or some of the monies are traced from a company called Mazwe Financial Services”.

Mazwe was the recipient of a R180-million payment in 2021, part of a controversial R294-million loan facility approved by the PIC that also triggered a forensic investigation in the same year, but that report purported to find no irregularities in the approval process.

Hako, who was acting CEO, signed the resolution to approve Mazwe’s funding application, which had been struggling to gain momentum within the PIC since 2018.

Responding to questions sent by amaBhungane, Mazwe’s CEO Xolisa Bebula emphatically denied these allegations, characterising them as “false, malicious and unfounded”.

Hako would not be drawn into commenting on the transfers made to his bond accounts but stated that he had not had sight of the whistleblower and forensic reports referred to in our questions.

“I cannot therefore be expected to respond to the allegations contained in the

report/s which I have never seen or read,” said Hako.

“My attorneys have written several letters to both the PIC and its attorneys raising concerns about my prolonged suspension. In addition, my attorneys also referred the dispute of unfair labour practice relating to unfair suspension to the [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration],” he added.

Blowing the whistle

Hako, who was previously the executive head of properties, was appointed as the organisation’s operations chief in November 2020. Documents show that after he was appointed as the COO, he remained the head of properties in an acting capacity.

Before Hako’s appointment, the PIC had been operating without a COO since 2015, when the PIC underwent a restructuring process.

The position was officially removed in 2017 when the board, chaired by former deputy minister Mcebisi Jonas, amended a clause in the company’s memorandum of incorporation that outlined how the COO and chief investment officer (CIO) should be appointed.

When the Commission of Inquiry looking at allegations of impropriety in investment decisions at the PIC completed its work in 2019, one of its recommendations was that these two roles, with the addition of a chief risk officer, should be reinstated to strengthen governance in the organisation.

The commission, led by retired Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Lex Mpati, found that the removal of the COO and CIO roles had created a “centralised operating model with a significant concentration of decision-making responsibility, power and influence in the hands of the CEO and the CFO”.

But in April 2021, six months after Hako was appointed COO, the PIC received a whistleblower report through its internal reporting line that accused him of wide-ranging abuses of power.

The allegations focused on incidents that supposedly took place when Hako was acting CEO between March 2019 and July 2020, as well as during his time as the head of properties.

The authors of the whistleblower report accused Hako of manipulating the appointment of senior staff members to exert control over investment decisions, among other claims.

When the PIC’s internal audit team looked through the various allegations, it found that a number of them were either without merit or too vague to investigate.

However, a memo submitted to the board’s internal audit committee and signed by the PIC’s head of internal audit Lufuno Nemagovhaniu recommended that a lifestyle audit be conducted on Hako to determine whether “there are any suspicious activities”.

“The lifestyle audit will inform whether a forensic investigation is required on some transactions or not,” reads the memo dated October 2021.

The Wedge

The allegations from whistleblowers kept piling up and, according to a confidential report submitted to the board by the chairperson of the audit committee, forced the PIC to consider whether Hako should continue to act as the head of properties.

The confidential report, seen by amaBhungane, detailed the proceedings of audit committee meetings held between October 2021 and May 2022. It stated that in November and December 2021, the PIC’s internal audit team received more complaints of impropriety against Hako involving two transactions in properties.

One of the whistleblower reports was related to a project to refurbish the Wedge Shopping Centre in Morningside that supposedly led to the PIC’s biggest client, the Government Employee Pension Fund (GEPF), incurring fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

The renovation of the shopping centre seemingly happened without the requisite approvals.  Moreover, a whistleblower report claimed that Hako “told his team not to inform the GEPF about the matter. Staff were too scared to talk about the matter”. 

Isago

The other complaint was related to the PIC’s contentious decision to buy a 60% stake in an empty piece of land located on the N12 highway between Klerksdorp and Stilfontein (known as the Isago@N12 transaction) for an inflated price of R510-million. In its 2020/2021 annual report, the PIC’s client, the GEPF, said it had valued the land at just R178-million.

In a previous article, amabhungane shared details about a court dispute involving the landowners, Isago@N12 Development, and a retired military veteran who helped broker the deal with the PIC.

The case revealed a dubious commission arrangement, signed in 2015 between Isago and the veteran, providing for a 35% facilitation fee based on the money the PIC invested in the vacant land.

The veteran’s fees were supposedly for leveraging his “connections” to facilitate the land sale.

The deal was finalised in 2018 during Hako’s time as the head of properties.

The audit committee report recorded that a whistleblower report had included allegations that “Hako had struck a deal to pay a bribe of R100-million to a specific military Colonel.”

The audit committee resolved to appoint a forensic firm to look into the allegations regarding both the renovations at The Wedge and the Isago transactions, according to the documents.

The PIC would not answer questions about the progress or outcome of these two forensic investigations, nor reveal whether they had found any evidence of wrongdoing against Hako.

Suspension

The documents reveal that as early as February 2022, the audit committee had asked the CEO of the PIC, Abel Sithole, to remove Hako as the head of properties pending investigations into the allegations made against him.

Sithole’s response seems to have been discussed in May, and the report of the audit committee chairperson states that the “CEO noted the suggestion from the Committee and stated that Mr Vuyani Hako will continue acting as Executive Head: Properties as the person he was considering to act [in that capacity] was also subject to an investigation.”

Unimpressed with Sithole’s response, the committee requested that the matter be discussed with the board.

A few days later Hako was suspended.

Disciplinary action

Hako did not respond to our detailed questions, saying it would not be “prudent” to ventilate the allegations levelled against him through a “media inquiry or a so-called court of public opinion initiated by amaBhungane.”

“I prefer to deal with and answer to the allegations levelled against me in a disciplinary process provided by my employer, the PIC,” said Hako.

Hako said that he was unaware of multiple whistleblower reports received by the PIC, asserting that there “was only one so-called whistleblower report referred to when I was placed on precautionary suspension.” Hako did confirm that the PIC has commenced a disciplinary hearing against him, which is ongoing. However, he would not elaborate on the process or the charges brought against him.

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Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo joined amaBhungane in September 2020 after leaving Moneyweb where she worked as a financial reporter. Tebogo is a Journalism and Media Studies graduate from the University of Witwatersrand where she specialised in radio, which led her to the Eyewitness News newsroom as an intern in 2017.

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