Travel scam MPs can do nothing but wait

Scores of members of parliament are enduring a nail-biting weekend as they wonder if they are among the 40 being charged on Monday for fraud relating to the R17.5-million travel scam.

It is understood that at least one member of the executive is among the 40 due to appear in court this week, along with what was termed a “disproportionate amount” of Western Cape-based MPs.

The case is already being billed as one of the biggest mass fraud trials of democratic lawmakers in history. African National Congress chief whip Mbulelo Goniwe, who has called the travel scam one of the biggest crises parliament has faced, said firm action would be taken against those found guilty.

The Scorpions have thrown a veil of secrecy around the identities of the 40 since their long-awaited announcement on Friday that the travel voucher scam investigation was complete.

Often accused of unnecessary leaks and rapped over the knuckles for this by parliament last year, the Scorpions seem to have decided to go to ground with all further information. Of the 40, 27 are current MPs and 13 are former MPs.

“This would undoubtedly be a tense time for anyone whose name had been mentioned in connection with the travel scam”, said Democratic Alliance national spokesperson Helen Zille. She said a list of 120 people had already been published.

Like most parties, the DA welcomed the completion of the investigation, but Zille questioned whether the 40 names were the full and final list.

“As the official opposition we will make sure that the matter is not brought to rest with a few scapegoats.”

The prosecution's announcement came in the same week that the ANC accused the investigators of dragging their feet and leaving a cloud of uncertainty over parliament. But the fraud charges will nevertheless cast a shadow over the opening of parliament on February 11.

Scorpions spokesperson Sipho Ngwema said in a statement that those to be charged would be able to “make representations on the merits, offer evidence as witnesses and engage the prosecuting authority in plea-bargaining”.

MPs will not be arrested in parliament, which is against the rules, but will be asked to hand themselves over to prosecutors. The announcement came as the cabinet was still locked in its annual January lekgotla, after which it was announced that Vusi Pikoli, justice department director-general, had been appointed national director of public prosecutions, the post left vacant by Bulelani Ngcuka. Pikoli would oversee the prosecution of the parliamentarians.

Goniwe would not elaborate on the announcement on Saturday either, but again indicated no notification about the charges had been received by MPs, their lawyers or parliament.

However, even if MPs were charged this coming week, they would not immediately lose their positions. MP Mpho Lekgoro, ANC spokesperson in parliament, said that it was clear that “the law must take its course and that people should be presumed innocent until a court found them guilty”.

The announcement came six months after seven travel agents were arrested for their role in the scam in which parliamentary air travel vouchers were fraudulently extended to cover other travel costs.

Reliable sources have previously indicated that the number of MPs to be prosecuted would be limited, with a cut-off point such as suspected fraud of R50 000 or more. Those under the amount would be offered automatic plea-bargains.

“After considering the evidence and consulting the affected parties, we have decided to prosecute certain members of parliament in this matter,” Ngwema said in the Friday statement. “The 40 members concerned will be notified next week and be brought before court immediately thereafter.”

At least 11 MPs will face civil action, with liquidators indicating on Saturday that they would be summonsed on Monday for more than R1.3-million they had failed to repay. Some had signed acknowledgments of debt.

Ngwema said on Friday a decision still had to be taken on whether the MPs' trial would be joined to that of the travel agents. One of the seven travel agents, Soraya Beukes, owner of Business and Executive Travel, is in jail after her R100 000 bail was withdrawn. She faces charges totalling R3-million.

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