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[AMABHUNGANE EXCLUSIVE ON EWN] How Lynne Brown misled Parliament

AmaBhungane reveals new evidence that the Public Enterprises Minister misled Parliament about contracts between Eskom and Trillian Capital Partners.

Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown. Picture: GCIS.

Earlier this week amaBhungane revealed how the Guptas grabbed Optimum Coal Holdings from resources giant Glencore – including allegations that Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe and chair Ben Ngubane tried to use Minerals Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi to put extra pressure on Glencore.

But when the Guptas emerged victorious and it was announced that they would buy Optimum for R2.15 billion, they struggled to come up with the money. Today we present new evidence that Eskom once again lent a helping hand.

By Susan Comrie, Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer from amaBhungane

In December last year, Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown tried to put rumours to rest of a lucrative pipeline of contracts between Eskom and Trillian Capital Partners.

Trillian, the financial services company owned by Gupta lieutenant Salim Essa, had not long before been accused of receiving big payouts from state-owned companies despite having no formal contracts and performing little or no work.

Salim Essa.  Picture: www.infraco.co.za

Salim Essa. Picture: www.infraco.co.za

Brown was responding to parliamentary questions from DA MP Natasha Mazzone, who asked, among other things, which “contracts of engagement have been concluded” between Eskom and Trillian, and “what are the costs involved in each case”.

Brown replied: “None” and “not applicable”.

AmaBhungane has established that by that stage, Trillian or its subsidiary companies had already invoiced Eskom for R266 million. Within days of Brown’s statement, Trillian invoiced Eskom for another R153 million.

This wasn’t the first time questions had been raised about Eskom’s relationship with Trillian.

On 27 October last year, Eskom issued a statement saying: “We would like to state categorically that Eskom has no contracts in place with Trillian Capital Partners and/or associated companies.”

Trillian has refused to disclose any details of contracts with Eskom, but said in a written statement to amaBhungane: “Trillian has denied in all of its responses to the media that it billed for work that it had not done. Trillian only bills for work which it has done…”

Either way, Parliament was misled about the substance of the question.

AmaBhungane put detailed questions to Brown last week. Her spokesperson responded via SMS: “We do not comment on PQs [parliamentary questions] unless there is a follow up question by a[n] MP.”

Brown has been under pressure all week after she backed a decision by Eskom’s board to reinstate Brian Molefe as chief executive.

Brian Molefe. Picture: EWN

Brian Molefe. Picture: EWN.

Molefe was chief executive during 2016 when the relationship between Eskom and Trillian blossomed but stepped down in November after former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela fingered him for his close relationship with the Guptas in her State of Capture report.

On Monday, Brown was summonsed to Luthuli House where, according to reports, the ANC told her to either remove Molefe or dissolve the board chaired by Ben Ngubane.

On Tuesday, amaBhungane and Eyewitness News revealed how both Molefe and Ngubane had allegedly pressured former Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi to cancel Glencore’s mining rights back in September 2015, seemingly to help the Guptas gain control of Optimum Coal.

(To read Tuesday's exclusive story click here)

Eskom board chairperson Ben Ngubane addresses a media briefing at the power utility's head office in Johannesburg on 4 November 2016. Picture: Reinart Toerien/EWN

Ben Ngubane. Picture: Reinart Toerien/EWN.

In her report Madonsela presented evidence that a number of firms had contributed to the R2.15 billion that Gupta-controlled Tegeta Exploration and Resources had to pay for Optimum. This included R235 million from Trillian and its subsidiaries – an allegation Trillian has repeatedly denied without giving details.

Although Trillian has no formal stake in Tegeta, another Essa-owned company, Elgasolve, became a 21.5% shareholder in Tegeta.

The question is whether Eskom, after squeezing Glencore to the point where it had little option to sell, then contributed to Tegeta’s purchase of Optimum by shovelling money to Trillian.

AmaBhungane has confirmed that Trillian companies invoiced Eskom a total of about R419 million between April and December 2016:

• 14 April: R30.7 million for work on Eskom’s corporate plan

• 10 August: R113.3 million for management consulting

• 10 August: R122.2 million for financial advisory services

• 14 December: R152.8 million for management consulting.

Considering that Trillian formally started operating in March 2016, this equates to an incredible innings of over R1.4 million per day.

THE R659M PREPAYMENT

In April last year, Tegeta was scrambling to come up with the R2.15 billion it needed to buy Optimum from Glencore.

Despite telling the banks that it had the necessary finance, Tegeta was at least R600 million short with just a few days to go to the 14 April deadline.

Phone records secured by Madonsela show that between 9 and 12 April, Tegeta chief executive Ronica Ragavan called Molefe 11 times.

Ronica Ragavan.  Picture: www.southafricanmedia.co.za

Ronica Ragavan. Picture: www.southafricanmedia.co.za

On 11 April, Eskom came to the rescue. In a late-night tender committee meeting, its executives agreed to give Tegeta a R659-million prepayment for coal on the basis that Tegeta needed money upfront to “enable it to meet production requirements”.

This was not true. Among other things, a recent draft report from a year-long National Treasury investigation found there was “no evidence” that Optimum or Tegeta used the funds to procure any equipment – which suggests it was applied to the purchase price. Both Molefe and Eskom have fervently defended Eskom’s decision, saying the prepayment was made “when there [was] security of supply risk during the height of load-shedding”.

In a pattern that has become somewhat predictable, a quick Google search reveals that just two weeks before the prepayment was made, Brown had confidently declared in Parliament that the electricity crisis had been solved.
“Load shedding has become a thing of the past… The group chief executive officer, Brian Molefe, has assured me that there is no prognosis for load shedding over the winter months,” Brown’s official speech from 6 April 2016 reads.

ESKOM’S HELPING HAND TO TRILLIAN

If Eskom’s prepayment to Tegeta was the first concrete example of Eskom helping the Guptas buy Optimum, the uncanny coincidence of timing and urgency suggests the first of the Trillian invoices must fall into the same category.

Now remember that Madonsela said Trillian had contributed R235 million to the purchase consideration for Optimum, which was due on 14 April last year.

AmaBhungane has confirmed that Trillian invoiced Eskom for R30.7 million on 14 April. Eskom paid Trillian on the same day – highly unusual for a state-owned company.

Ironically, it was Trillian chief executive Eric Wood who provided proof that Trillian had received the money from Eskom. After a former Trillian executive had turned whistleblower and made a statement to Madonsela during her probe, Wood complained to police that the former executive was in possession of stolen company information.

Eric Wood, CEO of Trillian.  Picture: www.tcp.cp.za

Eric Wood. Picture: www.tcp.cp.za

As an example of what he argued was stolen information, Wood attached to his police affidavit an email Trillian had received from Eskom company secretary Mary Anne Hendricks. Dated 14 April, it notified Trillian of payment that had been made.

Trillian vehemently maintains it made no payment towards the Optimum acquisition, saying in a statement to amaBhungane:

“Trillian … did not make payments of any nature whatsoever in relation to the purchase of Tegeta/Optimum Coal Holdings. Trillian disputes allegations in this regard which are contained in the State of Capture Report. Pertinently, Trillian received no requests for information nor was Trillian subpoenaed by the public protector.”

Trillian, however, refused to discuss the payment from Eskom, saying: “Any work which Trillian does for its clients is subject to strict confidentiality covenants with its clients… To the extent that amaBhungane requires information from any client that it believes may have contracted with Trillian, amaBhungane should address a request to such party.”

Eskom would not comment on the payment, saying only: “Eskom has no contracts in place with Trillian Capital Partners and/or associated companies.”

Although the subsequent Trillian invoices to Eskom – R113.3 million and R122.2 million in August and R152.8 million in December – came after Tegeta’s purchase of Optimum was concluded, there is one further coincidence: the April and August invoices, stripped of VAT, total R233 million – just R2 million short of what Madonsela said Trillian had paid towards the Optimum purchase consideration.

THE COMPANY THAT DOESN’T NEED CONTRACTS

Did Trillian at least earn the millions Eskom paid it?

Even that is drawn into question by the former Trillian executive-turned-whistleblower in a statement she made in June 2016 to Madonsela.

The whistleblower, who cannot be named on the basis of a Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration ruling, alleged that she was repeatedly asked to invoice Transnet and Eskom for “work performed” when Trillian had no contracts in place and, in some cases, had done little more than make an initial presentation.

She noted in the statement, obtained by amaBhungane: “I raised a concern … due to the fact that we (Trillian) have unsigned contracts but continue to work with these clients. My concern was not addressed adequately by the group CEO: Eric Wood.”

The whistleblower also claimed:

• In February 2016, a day or two after Trillian’s first meeting with Transnet, Wood instructed her to generate a R10-million invoice. “I told him I cannot send a client an invoice with a proposal as no work had been performed at that point. We had just met the client …” The invoice was issued on 17 February.

• A R36-million invoice was submitted to Transnet on 15 April last year, allegedly after Trillian merely presented an initial proposal to leverage Transnet’s property portfolio.

Trillian has dismissed the whistleblower’s claims, saying: “In court papers filed before the Labour Court, [the executive] under oath distances herself from the affidavit which she purportedly gave to the public protector stating that no such affidavit ever existed.”

It appears, however, that Trillian is playing with words. The whistleblower denied making an affidavit – a statement which complies with legal prescripts – but confirmed in the same court papers that she had made “a detailed statement” to Madonsela.

Trillian insisted it only invoiced for work performed.

Transnet refused to comment on specific payments allegedly made to Trillian, saying: “All service providers are paid for services rendered after Transnet has satisfied itself that all obligations are fulfilled.”

STONEWALLING

The contradictions between what Brown, Eskom, Transnet and Trillian are saying – and the information uncovered by amaBhungane – are unlikely to be resolved soon.

Both the former whistleblower’s case and the Public Protector’s probe have been tied up in legal battles, and an investigation by senior advocate Geoff Budlender into Trillian’s alleged leverage over the state is bogged down in disputes over access to Trillian documentation.

Advocate Geoff Budlender.  Picture: www.capebar.co.za

Advocate Geoff Budlender. Picture: www.capebar.co.za

In November, after a series of damning articles in the Sunday Times, Trillian chairman Tokyo Sexwale appointed Budlender to investigate.

One of the issues Sexwale asked Budlender to probe was whether Trillian “invoiced some [state-owned entities] for work which was not done and without contracts.”

However, since Budlender received a first batch of documents in January, Trillian’s executive team has been refusing to furnish further documents or Wood’s laptop, iPad and cellphone for inspection.

“In the terms of reference they gave an undertaking that they would make the documents available, but they haven’t. I was promised the documents would be delivered by Friday [two weeks ago] – they weren’t delivered,” Budlender confirmed last week.

Asked what he plans to do if Trillian continues to frustrate the investigation, Budlender said: “I’ll have to consider my position… [but] whatever report I issue will be made public.”

amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. Picture: Supplied.

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB supporter to help it do more. Sign up for its newsletter to get more.

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