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Prasa 'soap opera' plays out in parly as commuters suffer

Politics
Parliament - The public spat between the board of the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) and Collins Letsoalo, the former acting group chief executive whose contract was terminated amid allegations he had illegally hiked his salary by 350 percent, continued in Parliament on Tuesday.

Briefing the portfolio committee on transport in what one MP called a "he said, she said" engagement, Prasa board members outlined how they came to the decision to terminate Letsoalo's contract, with the latter accusing the board of lying.

Board member Tefetso Phitsane insisted: "I can categorically state that we obviously did not approve the said increase that has been set and we can't actually calculate how much it was because we've never really dealt with it..."

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Former acting Prasa chief executive Collins Letsoalo

He said an investigation into Letsoalo's salary was initiated weeks before a Sunday Times exposé more than a week ago, which revealed that Letsoalo had allegedly hiked his own salary to R5.9 million annually.

Phitsane said the board had decided on the Friday before the article was published "to part ways with the acting CEO".

Fellow board member William Steenkamp back Phitsane up, saying that when Letsoalo was seconded from the department of transport, a letter from Transport Minister Dipuo Peters stated he been employed "at the same grade he was earning in the department". "We also have the letter from the minister approving the secondment to Prasa."

He claimed the board only became aware that the minister approved the secondment "much later".

Letsoalo told MPs the board members were lying. "For me there is really no truth in what has been said here...I have never ever calculated my salary or ever asked for an increase," said Letsoalo.

"It is said when I walk around I'm called Mr 350 percent."

He insisted that he inquired what salary he was entitled to and was sent the remuneration package of former axed CEO Lucky Montana, reading several emails to HR executives that he said were also copied to board members.

"I took four months without getting any salary from Prasa," he said. He accused the board of pulling the wool over MPs eyes.

"This is subterfuge. This is about Werksmans. I refused to pay the Werksmans invoice."

Last year, Letsoalo told MPs the scope of a forensic audit done by Werksmans attorneys into Prasa, which is the country's single biggest contributor to irregular expenditure, with the Auditor General last year revealing R13.9 billion was spent by the state-owned enterprise without following the law.

On Tuesday, he said he told the board he was uncomfortable with some of Werksmans recommendations, including that the Hawks hire private investigators to probe criminal conduct at Prasa.

"This thing on Friday, I disagreed...in that committee decision to fire me". Phitsane then hit back, accusing Letsoalo of threatening the acting HR manager to approve the salary hike.

"There's a very interesting email obviously written by Mr Letsoalo where he threatens the group executive HR," he said.

According to Phitsane, the email read: "You give me what l was earning, failing which I will actually deal with you. If you continue doing this, I will take this as insubordination, because you are refusing to take a lawful job instruction."

Acting transport department director general Mathabatha Mokonyama denied board assertions that he was informed of the decision to terminate Letsoalo's services.

"I had not spoken to anybody or informed of the decision of the board until I also read it in media," he said.

According to Mokonyama the minister wrote to the board requesting a full report, also asking the directors why she should not intervene. The minister received a report on Friday last week and also a submission from Letsoalo "in the form of a sworn affidavit".

The allegations being hurled back and forth did not impress MPs with most blaming the board for the financial shenanigans at the state-owned commuter rail company.

Democratic Alliance (DA) MP said the situation as Prasa was "embarrassing" and that its mandate was to provide a reliable service to commuters. "This is not the mandate to argue about salaries, about who said what in emails..."

Fellow DA MP Manny de Freitas agreed with his colleague, sarcastically saying: "I've seen more professionalism in a high school tuck shop." He blamed both sides saying they "erred badly".

"How is it possible the board doesn't know of a letter of any matter from the minister? Either the board is highly incompetent...or someone is lying or I don't know. It's just very odd," said de Freitas, adding that Letsoalo negotiating his salary after his secondment was "beyond arrogant".

"It's like a soap opera."

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and African National Congress (ANC) launched scathing attacks on the board.

The EFF's Thilivhali Mulaudzi said MPs were being "abuse" by board members, accusing them of thinking they were above the shareholder (Minister Peters), and accused the board of "stealing" from Prasa when he referred to the fees the board members had to pay back for attending extra meetings. He was asked to withdraw the statement, but stubbornly replied: "They did not steal, they misused the money."

"This board must fall. The minister must take charge and appoint some people acting, until appointing a new board which will not have a problem."

ANC MP Mkhacani Maswanganyi demanded the agreement signed between Prasa and Letsoalo, not "the love letters [emails] between Letsoalo and Khumalo and the other one".

He also demanded the Minister brief MPs.

"When are we going to meet the Minister so that we have the relevant authority who must account to us and tell us why did she second Mr Letsoalo, was it in the public interest, and what were the conditions?"

Maswanganyi's ruling party colleague, Leonard Ramatlakane, accused board members of using Letsoalo as a "scapegoat" for their own failures. "You paid yourself at the expense of Prasa and you still on the board," Ramatlakane told board members.

Goodwill Radebe, also from the ANC, threatened to cut off money to the state owned company if the board is not relieved of its duties, calling them "corrupt".

"I don't see the difference in what happened in Prasa and what happened in SABC. Until this board is out, I'm not going to vote any money for Prasa. That one I promise you," he said.

Radebe went further intimating the minister was also to blame for Prasa's troubles. "Maybe the president must reshuffle the cabinet...," he suggested, before committee chairwoman Dikeledi Magadzi cut him off.

"This matter, I still believe I've got an assumption that he was fired because we announced he must close the tap," Radebe went on to say.

Magadzi said what worried her most was that Prasa's mandate to "up the stakes of the economy" and transport commuters was being "derailed".

"The trains are late, the train has been rescheduled, people are getting late to work here in the Western Cape. It's so painful, same as in Mabopane, same as in Soweto, but here its like our prayer give us today our daily bread...in the Western Cape."

She also wanted answers on why the contract with Werksmans which she said had already been paid to the tune of R127 million had been signed without going out to tender.

"We are not going to take it lying down."

Both Phitsane and Steenkamp said the MPs' assertions were "shocking.

"It's very painful to hear you are corrupt by the people you elected," said Steenkamp.

"What we were supposed to be paid as members of the board, we took a decision that we only taking 25 percent of the money due to the board that year. Any other version is not the truth."

Steenkamp promised to back up his statement "with documentary evidence".

MPs, determined to get answers, would continue grilling board members, Letsoalo and the department on Wednesday.

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