PARLIAMENT - A senior member of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, more commonly known as the Hawks, on Wednesday accused multinational retailer Steinhoff of "malicious compliance" of the law.

In a briefing to four parliamentary committees, the head of the Hawks' specialised commercial crimes unit, Major-General Alfred Khana, contradicted Steinhoff officials who in January told MPs that they had reported former chief executive Markus Jooste to the investigative body for investigation and possible prosecution.

"To make it utterly clear, Steinhoff did not report this matter to the Hawks. Steinhoff gave us a section 34 report," Khana told MPs, referring to section 34 of the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities act, which compels people in positions of authority who suspect wrongdoing to report the matter to authorities.  

The report, said Khana, was "empty" and did not point specifically to anyone suspected of wrongdoing.

On January 31, Steinhoff acting chairwoman Heather Sonn told MPs that the chairman of the company's audit committee, Steve Booysen, had reported Jooste to the Hawks.

"On the eve of the first appearance of Steinhoff before this committee, they dropped this report at our offices. When I saw the report, I was livid. This is malicious compliance in the utmost," Khana told MPs, basically inferring that Steinhoff lied to MPs.

Steinhoff attorney Robert Driman denied the company was guilty of malicious compliance. 

"If the impression was created that it was a cynical complaint, then I think it is the wrong impression," said Driman.

"I think there had been three or four meetings with the investigating team and senior officials of Steinhoff. I've attended one of those meetings...and when it was drawn to the company's attention that the general felt the report was made maliciously, the company wrote to him, invited him to be in touch..."

But MPs did not buy this, accusing Steinhoff of "delaying tactics", with one MP proclaiming "we are being played".

The four parliamentary committees (finance, public accounts, trade and industry, and public service and administration) urged Steinhoff to cooperate with the Hawks.

Meanwhile, the committees also resolved to set the ball rolling on issuing Jooste with a subpoena after he failed to pitch as requested.

Jooste, through a letter from his attorneys, declined an invitation from the committee to explain his role in the financial scandal which wiped billions off the value of Steinhoff International.

He claimed his appearance could undermine his right to a fair trial, given that the accounting irregularities at Steinhoff were under investigation by the Hawks and several other regulatory bodies, including the Financial Services Board.

"We've taken a decision to subpoena Mr Jooste. The matter of how this is managed and exactly when will be decided between the legal services unit in Parliament and the Speaker's office," said chairman of Parliament's standing committee on finance, Yunus Carrim, on the sidelines of Thursday's joint meeting.

"They will have to look at the right of Parliament to call any person before it, if needs be through a summons, on a matter of public interest on the one hand and on the other hand a person accused of wrongdoing to have a right of defence before any regulatory or investigative body, which is also pursuing the matter, including the Hawks."

Carrim said in his view it was possible to balance the right of parliamentarians to do oversight with the rights of an accused person.

Steinhoff's former chief financial officer Ben La Grange also did not attend, with his lawyers citing short notice.

Carrim said La Grange would be given 10 days "breathing space" to decide whether he will appear before the committee in mid-August, but "if we don't hear from him or he says he won't be coming, we will also seek to apply a subpoena to him".

The Steinhoff scandal, brought on by "accounting irregularities", wiped billions of rand of government pension funds invested through asset manager, the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).

- African News Agency (ANA)