President Jacob Zuma's legal fees came to roughly R5-million in the year before he was elected, his office told Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (Scopa) on Tuesday.

"There were unavoidable legal fees of R5-million, approximately, for the current president," Jessie Duarte, the chief operations officer in the presidency, told MPs who grilled presidential staff over the office's qualified audit for 2008/09.

The fees form part of unauthorised expenditure of R14.5-million in the presidency, which was also accumulated R24.5-million in irregular expenditure in the same year.

The presidency's chief financial officer, Bahumi Matebisi, said she could not give a breakdown of the legal fees. It is believed to have covered the cost of lawyers who acted for Zuma while he battled fraud and corruption charges.

"I don't have the reconciliation for the total amount," she said.

Charges against Zuma relating in part to the country's multi-billion-rand arms deal were reinstated in December 2007 and dropped on the eve of the April 2009 elections, paving the way for him to become president.

Scopa chairperson Themba Godi requested the presidency to supply the breakdown of Zuma's legal costs to the committee within a week.

The presidency's annual report reflected legal costs of R10.1-million for the last financial year, compared to R445 000 for 2007/08.

Duarte said the rest of the amount related to other law suits, including those brought by an Italian company involved in mining in Limpopo and by farmers who fell victim to stock theft on the Lesotho border.

In both cases the president was named as first respondent as this has become "a trend".

Duarte said apart from legal fees, the presidency's overspending ranged from funding for former president Thabo Mbeki's mediation in Zimbabwe to gratuities paid to former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and presidency minister Essop Pahad to catering at short notice without getting the requisite three quotes.

Irregular expenditure of R24.5-million occurred when the presidency paid this allocation to the now defunct National Youth Commission before it had submitted its strategic plan.

Deputy head of policy co-ordination in the presidency Alan Hirsch said the presidency funded the youth commission without the requisite plan because it would have folded otherwise.

He said the money was paid in quarterly tranches and by the end of the year the plan was in place.

MPs were sceptical however and Godi said the presidency had allowed itself to be "blackmailed" by the body.

Duarte in this and other instances appeared to shift blame to the Mbeki administration, saying the payment was made at the orders of the "previous accounting officer".

She added that no officials had faced sanction over the incident.

"Unfortunately, we have to say nothing happened."

Duarte also conceded that "principles of normal accounting were not followed" in compiling a record of assets in the presidency and that as a result the presidency "had to appoint a company to do asset registration for us".

Auditor General Terence Nombembe noted in his report that the presidency failed to furnish him with supporting documents for adjustments to the asset register with a combined worth of R9.4-million.

Duarte said no action had been taken against staff for their failure to register assets and said she believed they had since been taught to do the job properly.

Godi criticised the presidency for calling in an outside company to do its staff's work and for failing to take steps against under-performing staff.

He said it pointed to a trend in state departments to "let people get away with murder".

ANC MP Mandla Mbili scoffed at assurances by Duarte and Minister for Performance Monitoring Collins Chabane that they were satisfied with improved levels of financial management.

"The end product of your satisfaction resulted in a qualified audit report," he said. - Sapa