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Cape Town - Eleven years ago Wendy Addison blew the whistle on fraud in LeisureNet. It’s an action, she says today, that resulted in her life being threatened and left her in “abject poverty”.
The former international treasurer of LeisureNet spoke out a few weeks after hearing that Peter Gardener and Rodney Mitchell, the two former senior executives she blew the whistle on, were released from prison last month after serving roughly 19 months of a seven-year jail sentence.
Addison left South Africa after exposing the duo and “receiving anonymous death threats post blowing the whistle”.
She now lives in the UK and in an e-mail response to the Cape Times two days ago, said: “For the last twelve years, on being outed as the whistleblower, I have lived a life in abject poverty, mainly on welfare…
“I did indeed end up begging on the streets of London with my 12-year-old son, while squatting in a house.”
Gardener and Mitchell were the joint chief executives of LeisureNet, which operated the Health and Racquet gym franchise and which was liquidated in 2000 after running into financial difficulties.
Nearly 12 years ago Addison gave evidence at an inquiry into LeisureNet’s affairs and told a commission that Gardener and Mitchell had used the company as a personal bank. They were eventually convicted of fraud and in March 2011, after appealing their original sentences, the duo were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. But last week the Cape Times reported that they had been released from Malmesbury Medium A Correctional Centre, where they had set up a fully-sponsored, state-of-the-art gym for inmates and officials, after roughly 19 months there, and were now serving an alternative sentence.
Addison said: “I was made aware of this via individuals observing Rod Mitchell training at the Constantia Virgin Active in full view of members that he had defrauded. It is clear that the hubris has not been tamed by jail time.”
She had not expected their release and questioned the gym they had set up in prison.
“I challenge why convicted prisoners should be given the benefit of a ‘state-of-the-art’ gym when there are many innocent citizens in South Africa who, in my opinion, would be far more deserving of such a gym, outside of prison, in their communities.”
She said becoming the whistleblower in the LeisureNet saga had changed her life “irrevocably and significantly”. Addison left LeisureNet in 2000 and joined Virgin Atlantic in London, the company which eventually took over LeisureNet, but was abruptly dismissed from that job. She had tried to get a pro bono attorney to represent her in a civil case against Gardener and Mitchell.
“I was met with a deafening silence from the South African judiciary, the same judiciary who had utilised my willingness to do the right thing to their own benefit.”
Since then she had become a member of the Corruption Research Group at Surrey University. Addison also established an organisation, SpeakOut SpeakUp, a programme which educates on whistleblowing, corruption and anti-bribery.
“I am now in a position to encourage others to find the moral courage to speak out in the face of wrongdoing and to make whistleblowing a part of risk management... I invite Gardener/Mitchell to act as true heroes to extending their ‘good’ work to supporting my organisation as opposed to remaining in the very comfortable zone of gym fitness,” Addison said.
On the SpeakOut SpeakUp website, it says Addison reported corruption in what was better known as “the biggest corporate disaster in South African history”.
“Ousted as a whistleblower, Wendy became locked into a massively lopsided war of attrition. On one side the wrongdoers, still with the credibility and authority of their positions and with a wealth of resources behind them. On the other side Wendy, discredited in the public’s eyes, unemployed, unemployable (because of the notoriety of the case), running out of money, receiving death threats and having lost the support of friends and family,” it said.
According to an October 2001 Financial Mail article, it said at the time “most market watchers familiar with LeisureNet” had not heard of Addison. “Her testimony, though, will probably be etched in memories for a long time,” it said.