Freed Marais 'never doubted it'

2006-10-04 16:38

Cape Town - Former Western Cape premier Peter Marais turned to the public gallery with both arms raised in a victory salute after a Cape Town regional magistrate on Wednesday found him not guilty on two counts of corruption.

"Peter Marais has been an honest, God-fearing person," he said outside the courtroom afterwards, wiping a tear from his eye as jubilant family and supporters thronged around him.

"No matter how many accusations they bring against me, they couldn't prove a single one."

However, Marais's co-accused, former environment MEC David Malatsi was less fortunate.

Although discharged on four counts of fraud and theft by Bellville regional magistrate André le Grange, Malatsi was convicted on one corruption count.

Donations totalled R400 000

Submissions on sentencing will be heard on Friday.

The marathon trial, which began in late 2003 and heard evidence from 40 witnesses, centred on donations totalling R400 000 that Italian developer Count Riccardo Agusta made in April 2002 to the New National Party, of which Marais and Malatsi were then both members.

The State claimed the donations were to secure environmental approval by the province of Agusta's proposed Roodefontein golf estate development at Plettenberg Bay.

Le Grange said in his judgment that prosecutor Bruce Morrison had wanted the court to "draw the inference" that Marais and Malatsi solicited the donations.

Morrison claimed that the two promised a go-ahead for the development at a spaghetti dinner with Agusta after touring Roodefontein on April 5.

This, he said, was emphatically denied by Malatsi.

R1m plea bargain

The probabilities, Le Grange said, did not favour Morrison's version.

He said it was common cause that Agusta, wealthy heir to the Agusta helicopter empire, entered into a R1m plea bargain with then-national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka.

In terms of this, the Italian was absolved of any further involvement in the case.

It was "highly unlikely" Ngcuka would have authorised such an agreement knowing Agusta possessed information that could help secure a conviction against "other perpetrators".

No direct evidence

Le Grange also said there was no evidence to support the claim by Ingrid Coetzee, the provincial environment official charged with issuing a final decision on Roodefontein, that Marais declared at an April 17 meeting that the development "will go through even if it takes a political decision".

Although the R300 000 Agusta paid to the NNP by arrangement with Marais a day after the meeting "raises some suspicion of impropriety", Agusta's plea agreement did not indicate that Marais promised him the development would be approved.

"There is no direct evidence that (Marais) instructed (Malatsi) or an official of the department to issue a positive record of decision (ROD), nor sufficient circumstantial evidence to support such an inference as inescapable," he said.

Vito Palazzolo

However, Le Grange said, there was no doubt that Malatsi compromised his own position when he collected a cheque of R100 000 at Agusta's Franschhoek farm on April 19.

Agusta asked him then to intercede with Ngcuka on behalf of alleged Mafia money man Vito Palazzolo, a South African citizen, whom Agusta believed was being unnecessarily prosecuted.

Le Grange said that when a decision on Roodefontein eventually was issued, the developers appealed, and Malatsi presided in the appeal and issued a fresh ROD "which may be construed to favour the developer".

Although Malatsi testified that he was not influenced by the money that was paid into the NNP's Khayelitsha constituency bank account, his personal loans from the account reflected a different picture.

"The only reasonable conclusion that can be inferred from the proven facts is that accused one (Malatsi) was given a benefit payable to the NNP Khayelitsha banking account, to induce him to act in a corrupt manner, to ensure the issuing of a positive record of decision and to ensure the expeditious authorisation of the development," said Le Grange.

The fraud and theft charges against Malatsi related, among other things, to a R3 000-a-day expense claim for accommodation at a house owned by his wife when he was in Johannesburg on official business.

Acknowledgements of debt

Le Grange said there was no evidence to show this claim was submitted by Malatsi himself.

The charges also related to amounts totalling more than R20 000 Malatsi took from the NNP Khayelitsha account.

Le Grange ruled those amounts were above board because Malatsi signed formal acknowledgements of debt.

Malatsi said after the judgment that he was satisfied with the magistrate's findings.

He said he had compromised himself with Agusta because he had been "misled".

"He's the one (the magistrate) who must decide whether am I good material for jail."

Marais, reading from a statement - which he said was the only one he had prepared, thanked his wife, Bonita, and their four children, "and especially the public who have stood by me, who believed in my innocence throughout this trial".

"I want to say this: victory is mine, because vengeance is God's."

Vengeful politicians

In an apparent reference to former NNP national leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who took over from Marais as premier, he said South Africa had become "the battleground of power-hungry and vengeful politicians".

"They had to get me out of the premiership. And, somebody wanted it. And they were going to concoct a story (in order to do it)."