Durban - The State will attempt to introduce incriminating evidence against disbarred attorney Ian Stokes through e-mails he sent to former business associates, an alleged admission he made to the Attorneys’ Fidelity Fund and a statement made by a senior advocate in his presence to several people he is now accused of stealing from.
This was the opening salvo fired by advocate Andre Ludick, prosecutor in the trial which began before Durban High Court Judge Esther Steyn on Thursday.
Stokes, who ran a law firm and a separate business dealing in Road Accident Fund claims from premises in La Lucia Ridge, and his alleged victims are finally having their day in court, 14 years after Stokes fled South Africa amid allegations that he had stolen millions.
He returned four years later, after an unopposed extradition process. He now faces one charge of theft “by general deficiency” from his trust account.
The amount on the indictment is more than R8 million - enough, if he is convicted, to earn him 15 years in jail.
Ludick said one count of almost R1m, involving East Coast Timbers, was not being pursued.
He also placed on record that an investor in the Road Accident Fund business, Robert Mauer, could not be traced, placing in doubt that the State would pursue a further count of about R1.3m.
The original investigating officer, the trustee of Stokes’s sequestrated estate and an investigator were also dead. In spite of this, the State would show through evidence that Stokes had been rolling funds, Ludick said.
He said Stokes bought Road Accident Fund claims which were not processed quickly enough or rejected.
“He had insufficient funds to cover his borrowing from the RAF business and the money entrusted to him.
“He resorted to rolling funds to maintain his lifestyle and keep up appearances and he eventually ran out. It was a species of a Ponzi scheme. When the money did not come back quickly enough, it collapsed.”
Ludick submitted bank statements which, he said, would prove that between June 1998 and October 2000, about R17.5m had been deposited into the law firm’s bank accounts. But apart from legitimate pay-outs of about R9m, when Stokes fled there were “negligible amounts” left.
Stokes pleaded not guilty. In a statement, read out by his advocate, Jimmy Howse, he said he did not intend to steal any of the money “and consider myself not guilty”.
He said he had been severely hampered in preparation for the trial because many financial records were not available and had “disappeared in circumstances beyond my control”.
He said this issue had been dealt with previously by Judge Anton van Zyl who had dismissed his application for a permanent stay of prosecution.
However, he pointed out parts of the judgment in which the judge said the question of trial prejudice should be assessed through oral evidence at the trial.
The trial has been set down for a few weeks.