Payback time for Travelgate MPs...

May 28, 2006

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By Chiara Carter and Sheena Adams

Two cabinet ministers and the ANC's chief whip are among more than 60 politicians who have agreed to repay debts to liquidators in the multi-million-rand Travelgate scandal.

On Monday, parliament's top decision-making body meets to hear a briefing from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) on the probe into the multimillion rand Travelgate furore, amid claims that some of the most senior MPs have admitted they owed money to implicated travel agencies.

It is understood that questions are to be raised at this briefing about repayments by some of the more high-profile MPs.

In the three-year Travelgate saga, involving widespread misuse of parliament's travel vouchers by both MPs and travel agencies, and thought to involve more than R30-million, five MPs have, so far, plea-bargained to fraud charges and lost their jobs.

But parliament has been at pains to point out that because MPs repay debts does not imply anything untoward as these debts might well have been legitimate, and nothing fraudulent was implied by repayment.

The Minister of Home Affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and another minister have both paid undisclosed amounts for outstanding travel expenses to liquidators of Bathong Travel after they received letters questioning discrepancies in travel claims submitted to parliament in their names, according to independent and well-placed sources.

While these sources did not disclose the final settlement agreement, details for the two cabinet heavyweights, according to a forensic analysis on Bathong compiled by parliament and auditors last year, involved many thousands of rand.

Mapisa-Nqakula had not responded by the time of going to press to questions on the repayments.

The same forensic list places land-based travel by ANC chief whip Mbulelo Goniwe at R66 154,74.

According to multiple sources, however, Goniwe is repaying parliament well over R70 000. The outspoken chief whip was one of the sharpest critics in parliament - and beyond - of the way the Travelgate scandal and the nature of the investigations was being handled.

Goniwe could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts since Friday.

Another prominent politician on the Bathong client list, Free State Premier Beatrice Marshoff, this week made a brief appearance at a Cape court during the travel agency's liquidation proceedings - including an inquiry into her travel expenses that involved cancelled tickets of more than R95 000 with refunds standing at R8 622.

She is unlikely to reappear after liquidators said she was "helpful" and provided them with valuable information.

Bathong boasted more than 200 MPs as clients.

The politicians whose names appeared on parliament's audit list, and were asked to explain who paid for land-based travel - mostly hired cars - and other related expenses that they booked through Bathong Travel, more than 60 are said to have agreed to repay expenses.

In some cases these run into hundreds of thousands of rands.

For example, one doyenne of Cape Town politics is repaying about R235 000 for cars hired in her name but, in several cases, driven by well-known Cape ANC figures.

But while senior politicians quietly strike deals, few - if any - are likely to face criminal charges, given that, so far, the MPs charged along with travel agents have been relatively small fry.

Tomorrow the Parliamentary Oversight Committee is scheduled to be briefed by the NPA on the Travelgate investigation.

This panel includes presiding officers, their deputies, and the chief whips of the ANC, Democratic Alliance and Inkatha Freedom Party.

DA chief whip Douglas Gibson said he was concerned at the discrepancies between progress achieved through liquidation hearings and related civil proceedings and the criminal investigations, where relatively few low-ranking MPs face criminal charges.

Gibson said he would be questioning which big fish - including ministers and chief whips - had been identified by forensic auditors.

The Travelgate probe - both criminal and civil - has taken several years and has been characterised by intrigue and mudslinging.

The principal whistleblower, Chief Financial Officer Harry Charlton, was dismissed from parliament early this year following a disciplinary hearing that Charlton claimed was motivated by the need to put a lid on Travelgate and silence him.

When the NPA first became involved in the criminal probe into the scam, Goniwe used the opportunity of a media briefing to attack the integrity of the NPA - a move analysts criticised as "designed to deflect attention from the fact that parliament and political parties are not taking action against members implicated in the abuse of travel funds".

He said the Scorpions' probe "smacked of dubious intentions", and resembled a circus. It was intended only to "showcase South Africa as a criminal paradise".

He said the Scorpions should appear in parliament to explain their actions - a demand later watered down by his colleagues.

But it was Goniwe who later announced the resignations of five MPs who plea-bargained with the NPA amid speculation that the disgraced MPs had been betrayed because they were promised they could retain their seats.

Another accused MP, Garth Mngomezulu, who is paying off a vast amount of car hire debt, resigned from parliament earlier this week.

Parliament's public relations officer, Luzuko Jacobs, this weekend said parliament was not in a position to comment on repayments decided in the liquidation process. Its only interest was in making sure it was reimbursed money owed to it.

He pointed out some of the debts being repaid might have been incurred through bona fide business relationships

"Any payment agreements would be entered into directly between debtors and the liquidators. Parliament would therefore not necessarily have information of all payment agreements.

Whether or not the ministers owe money as well as the circumstances of their indebtedness would be outside of parliament's ambit in this process," Jacobs said.

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