Cape Town -
Former Hout Bay fishing magnate Arnold Bengis is suing the South African government for $11 million (R121m) for helping US courts jail him for smuggling South African lobster and Patagonian toothfish into the US and for having to pay $22.5m restitution to the government in 2012.
The former Capetonian, now living in the UK, his son David and his former business partner, Jeffrey Noll, have brought an application against the South African government, three cabinet ministers, members of the former Scorpions and the former legal adviser of fisheries, claiming that the help these parties gave to the US criminal prosecution and restitution proceedings against the trio was unconstitutional and unlawful.
They are claiming $11 351 703 in damages – the amount they had to pay in legal fees in the US.
This is the latest in a string of court cases involving Bengis, 78, and the now defunct Hout Bay Fishing Industries, once one of the country’s top fishing companies.
Between 1987 and 2001, Bengis and co-conspirators were involved in an elaborate scheme of poaching huge quantities of rock lobster and then exporting it illegally to the US.
No other case illustrated the breadth and depth of corruption in the fishing industry at the time as clearly as that of Hout Bay Fishing Industries.
After national and international investigations, corruption was uncovered involving company directors and their top executives, skippers, boat owners and the then-entire Sea Point office of the former Marine and Coastal Management’sfishery inspectors.
Last week, in papers lodged in the Western Cape High Court, Bengis said during the plea bargain negotiations with the Scorpions in 2002, he and co-accused Collin van Schalkwyk had made it “absolutely clear that a guilty plea must bring an end to all potential criminal proceedings against ourselves” regarding the crimes he was charged with.
The Scorpions had assured him that this was the case and had made it clear that the South African authorities had no interest in the US proceedings and that no co-operation would be given.
Bengis and his co-accused were then arrested in the US in 2003 on charges of conspiring to smuggle South African lobster and Patagonian toothfish into the US.
In 2004, the US courts sentenced Bengis to 46 months’ jail, his son to one year and Noll to 30 months. They completed their jail terms and were released.
In 2007, South Africa applied to the US courts for Bengis and the co-accused to pay restitution to the government. The case was rejected, but in 2011 the US Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision, and in 2012 they were ordered to pay $22.5 million, the largest restitution amount ever awarded under the US Lacey Act.
“It is clear the South African authorities actively and energetically assisted the US authorities in their investigations and throughout our prosecution in the US and participated in the US legal processes… (This) was contrary to the spirit and letter of the settlement agreement.”
The South African help had resulted in Bengis and his co-accused being jailed in the US.
“I was transported to and from nine different institutions in chains and shackles in the company of hardened criminals… We will forever be regarded as felons. Our credibility worldwide has been destroyed… At my age, time is running out,” Bengis said.
The case will be heard on March 12.