STEINHOFF is looking to claw back base salaries, bonuses and other incentives paid to former chief executive Markus Jooste over several years from 2009. Reuters
JOHANNESBURG - Steinhoff International Holdings is seeking more than R850million from former chief executive Markus Jooste for his role in the accounting crisis that triggered the retailer's near-collapse.

The owner of Conforama in France and Mattress Firm in the US is looking to claw back base salaries, bonuses and other incentives paid to Jooste over several years from 2009, according to legal papers filed to the high court in Cape Town. Ex-chief financial officer Ben la Grange is being sued for about R271m as part of the same case.

The lawsuit leaves little doubt that Steinhoff’s current management holds Jooste chiefly responsible for the series of dubious third-party transactions and artificially inflated asset values at the company. The former chief executive and La Grange were among eight people named by Steinhoff in March as being allegedly behind the irregular deals, which ultimately forced it to restate years of financials.

The shares have collapsed by 97 percent since the crisis erupted in late 2017, while Steinhoff remains locked in talks with creditors about the restructuring of $12billion (R170.72bn) of debt. The company is being investigated by regulators and authorities around the world, including the Hawks.

The payment of salaries and bonuses to Jooste and La Grange was dependent on “the sound and successful financial performance” of the retailer, according to the court papers. Had the company been aware of all the facts, the remuneration committee would not have recommended any payment, they said. Steinhoff was under the “reasonable, but mistaken, belief that such base salaries were due,” the documents said.

Jooste didn't answer a call or text message to a cellphone number he has used in the past. His lawyer, Callie Albertyn, didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

“I have received the summons and we are currently working through it,” La Grange said by text message. “I don't wish to comment on the claim other than by way of the legal process.”

Steinhoff didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

As part of the more than R850m claim against Jooste, Steinhoff is seeking about 2.1m euros in bonuses that he received in 2017 without prior approvals. Those payments were first disclosed in Steinhoff’s annual report for that year, released in May.