DURBAN - The owners of popular Little Gujarat restaurants were caught selling more than their famous vegetarian bunny chows this week.
Police suspect Varsha, 44, and Hiteshkumar Bhatt, 46, and a former Chatsworth school teacher, Preshni Hiramun, 54, are the masterminds who sold medicine and other health science places at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for up to R500 000.
On Friday, an elite team from the Hawks Organised Crime Unit and the National Intervention Unit (NIU) raided the homes and businesses of three people. The probe was led by investigating officer Mandla Mkhwanazi and Constable Nomfanelo Mabaso.
The trio was charged with fraud and contravention of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act.
The three are accused of working as agents in cahoots with a syndicate at UKZN to fraudulently enrol students in the health science faculty and school of medicine.
There is also evidence to suggest they have links to a syndicate at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, once known as the Medical University of South Africa.
Friday’s raids were conducted at the couple’s upmarket homes in La Lucia and uMhlanga as well as their businesses.
Little Gujarat, in the Durban CBD, came to a standstill as customers watched as the police swooped, seizing assets belonging to the Bhatts, including two Mercedes-Benz vehicles, laptops, hard-drives and flash drives.
At Hiramun’s home in Somerset Park, uMhlanga, laptops were found hidden in a washing machine.
Evidence, such as documents pertaining to the syndicate, was also seized.
It is alleged the Bhatts and Hiramun acted as agents. They chatted to interested parents, negotiated bribes and liaised with university staff who helped get the parents’ children enrolled.
This was done even though the students involved did not meet the minimum requirements for the courses.
The three suspects allegedly charged R250 000 for admission to the health sciences faculty. This included pharmacy, optometry and audiology. They charged R500 000 for a place in medicine.
It is further claimed the trio were involved in the sale of examination question and answer papers for an additional R30 000.
The arrests followed a sting operation by the Hawks during this year’s admission period from February to March, where students were admitted into the university for a bribe.
The suspects were held over the weekend at the Westville SAPS and were expected to appear in court tomorrow.
KZN Hawks spokesperson Captain Simphiwe Mhlongo confirmed the arrests and said the probe was at a sensitive stage. Mhlongo said more arrests were imminent.
An investigation into their affairs was prompted in January when UKZN vice-chancellor Professor Albert van Jaarsveld handed information against the syndicate to the Hawks.
Van Jaarsveld welcomed the arrests. He said UKZN would not tolerate fraud within the institution and would apply appropriate prevention and detection controls.
“All fraud will be investigated and followed up by the application of all remedies available to the full extent of the law,” he said.
In June, the Sunday Tribune exposed the work of an alleged syndicate. During the course of the probe, this newspaper interacted with the arrested suspects and recorded a series of conversations in which negotiations took place to admit a student to UKZN to study pharmacy.
The university subsequently asked KPMG to conduct a forensic audit. Police have now asked those who may be involved in the syndicate, including students fraudulently admitted, to come forward before they are caught. UKZN has set up a toll-free fraud hotline number, 0800 203 285.
Who are the Bhatts?
Hitesh and Varsha Bhatt are well known for their bunny chows and for the Little Gujarat restaurant, which CNN declared last year one of the world’s best for street food.
The couple came to South Africa in 1990 from Gujarat, India, after Hitesh decided to follow his father and open a business here.
His father opened the first Little Gujarat store in Bertha Mkhize (Victoria) Street in 1989 and it became a hit.
Today the couple owns a string of businesses, including restaurants, an Eastern wear boutique in the CBD and an investment company.
As the couple’s restaurant was raided on Friday, people from neighbouring businesses said the Bhatts were respected, long-standing tenants at Dr Goonam (Prince Edward) Street.
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