Collins Letsoalo at Monday's press briefing. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Pretoria - Collins Letsoalo, former acting chief of Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), said on Monday that his dismissal from the troubled entity was due to "a web of corruption and looters" he had unearthed during his walkabouts and roadshows at the agency, and never about an alleged massive salary increase.

Breaking his silence during a media briefing in Pretoria, Letsoalo said that in his brief spell at Prasa, he had unearthed what he termed "blame Lucky Montana and the previous board syndrome", which saw him quickly making enemies. Montana was Letsoalo's predecessor and was blamed for many of Prasa's troubles.

Letsoalo said this "syndrome" - which included high absenteeism, collapse of the engineering function, lack of job or performance contracts and rampant sexual harassment - had engulfed the organisation from the board all the way to the tea lady.   

"I quickly discovered that some amongst the board and executives were pathological liars. Board members and executives were more concerned about payments of suppliers; some had the tendency of dropping in just to check how the organisation is doing without any appointment [and would] demand that I be dragged out of meetings," Letsoalo claimed.

"I was going to have none of that. I immediately instructed executives not to take any instructions directly from anyone and take all instructions from me. Then all hell broke loose. At this time the chairperson seemed supportive of my efforts."

Letsoalo was booted from Prasa in February 2017 following allegations that he had irregularly awarded himself a 350 percent pay increase in October 2016 when he was seconded to Prasa from the Department of Transport. The increase took his salary from R1.3 million a year to R5.9 million. 

He was chief executive of the Road Traffic Management Corporation before joining Prasa. 

Letsoalo denied allegations that he had increased his salary, and instead placed the blame at the foot of the agency's board. He said the rules of natural justice did not apply under the leadership of former Prasa chairperson, Popo Molefe.

"I had entered a lions' den and I was surrounded; at every board meeting - most of them special and without any proper notice - my removal was a standard agenda item. There would be what is called an "in-committee" meeting in instances without the company secretary. These cloak and dagger meetings had no recordings nor minutes," he said.

"They took hours at times. Some executive decisions were taken in these meetings without the only executive director, the group CEO, present. In some meetings, discussions were about a certain executive's parents who had called to ask why she was dismissed. It was never about the trains, performance, or customers."

Letsoalo said his dismissal was about the investigations, procurement plan, the payments of suppliers and non-payment of others. He said almost every board committee focused on money, not how to cut expenses, grow revenue and ensure trains were on time, clean or maintained. 

"I then unwittingly disturbed the hornet's nest when in December 2016, before the festive period, I requested each employee to declare their business interests and those of their close family and relatives who are doing business with Prasa. I also requested them to disclose blood relations with other Prasa employees and the nature of such relationships," he said.

"The results were shocking to say the least. We found massive conflicts of interest and what clearly looked like the highest form of nepotism. That's what employees were complaining about. You may ask the question, where was organised labour? The allegations will also shock you but that is not the focus for now. I remain a dedicated and committed civil servant. I stole no one's money."

On Sunday, the Sunday Times issued a retraction of its story "Pay it back, AG tells Prasa's 350% boss" and apologised to Letsoalo. This after Letsoalo took the paper to the press ombudsman for reporting in June that the Auditor-General had recommended that he should repay the money he awarded himself by allegedly hiking his salary 350 percent. The ombudsman ruled in favour of Letsoalo. 

African News Agency/ANA