Proposals for the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry into private-sector spying are at an advanced stage in the office of Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, the Mail & Guardian has established.
It is understood the commission would investigate the conduct of private investigative firms and the influence they have on the South African justice system, and more specifically allegations of phone-tapping that go back to the late 1990s.
The proposals are informed in part by a dossier provided to the minister that includes the statements and affidavits of former employees of Investec and the Associate Intelligence Network (AIN), now called the Specialised Services Group (SSG).
The allegations, mainly from individuals who say they have fallen foul of the bank, claim that Investec has been knowingly involved in the gathering of illegal intelligence on some people using AIN/SSG.
Both Investec and SSG have denied any wrongdoing.
Justice department spokesman Tlali Tlali told the M&G that “the matter is currently under consideration”.
“The minister [Radebe] has indicated that he has not yet approached the president, but that is the route that will be followed. The president will then either sign it or decline to sign it,” Tlali said.
SA’s own phone hacking scandal
If approved, the commission could form the nucleus of South Africa’s own “phone-hacking” scandal involving private security companies conducting surveillance, in this case on behalf of corporate clients not including media companies.
There is anecdotal evidence that the practice is rife in the security industry as a whole. It is not known whether the government wants an inquiry into illegal surveillance generally or whether it merely wants to restrict it to state-controlled agencies.
Nevertheless, SSG chief executive Warren Goldblatt told the M&G that he and his firm would “welcome” a probe with “open arms”.
“We would love a commission of inquiry because then we can answer the questions in a proper forum. The company is only involved in activities that are legal. We have broken no laws or tapped any phones unlawfully,” Goldblatt said.
“In the fullness of time, the truth will be revealed. I am more than satisfied to answer these questions.
“I have had it with these shenanigans— [being pursued] for financial gain. You will see who the real criminals are. We are a victim at a time when investigation services in the state are under extreme pressure.”
Investec, in a response to questions by the M&G, said it was not the bank’s “policy to spy on clients, nor does the bank condone activities that violate the constitutional rights of individuals. Any investigative work required by Investec from time to time is done in accordance with the law.”
Investec said that it had “no knowledge” of proposals regarding a commission of inquiry.
“If such a commission is convened and Investec is requested to make submissions, we will fulfil our lawful obligations.”
Among the substrate of allegations being considered by the justice department are claims that AIN/SSG, at the behest of Investec, tapped phones, monitored former employees’ and clients’ personal information and hacked into their financial affairs.
Some of the allegations were aired in a 2010 Cape High Court dispute between Investec and the Chait family, later settled, which disclosed affidavits from two security operators allegedly engaged by Investec to spy on Investec employees and their associates who were accused of fraud.
Seun Briel and Johan Rademeyer released affidavits alleging they were used in phone-tapping operations that targeted, among others, former Investec employee Laetitia Peyper.
Peyper’s then-attorney Michael Murphy wrote to the National Prosecuting Authority in 2004 and provided the affidavit from Rademeyer to back up his claims, but he never received an acknowledgement.
In his letter, Murphy said the surveillance was conducted for Investec to “procure evidence or indications of avenues which could [be] explored to find such evidence to substantiate a significant insurance claim which Investec had lodged, or intended to lodge, with Lloyds of London based upon alleged employee fraud”.
But Goldblatt told the M&G: “People were paid to make affidavits. Certain activities have been stretched into the realm of illegality to embarrass us.”
Investec told the M&G that the allegations of phone-tapping and illegal spying “relate to matters going back some 14 years” and “are contained in a report based on the statement of a former employee [Peyper] who was convicted of fraud as well as an affidavit which we believe to be fraudulent”.
Peyper reached a plea bargain agreement in 2004 and was fined R300 000.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.