SAA suspended top exec for using 'wrong' whistle-blower service, inquiry hears

SAA in 2016 charged a former employee for not using its own internal whistle-blowing service when she raised the alarm on a contract she said was costing the company tens of millions of rands in pointless fees.  

The embattled airline ended up cancelling the contract after it was threatened with legal action in the high court.

But it still proceeded to charge Cynthia Stimpel, a former group treasurer, with misconduct for breaching SAA's "anonymous reporting policy" for using the "wrong" whistle-blowing service to make her concerns known about a R15bn debt restructuring loan agreement with BnP Capital. 

Stimpel was SAA's head of financial risk management for a decade before being appointed its acting group treasurer in February 2015, a position that was later made permanent. 

She was given the letter laying out the reasons behind her suspension in late July 2016 only after the airline had cancelled the contract she complained about.  

"They said it was a breach that I didn’t use [their] method," Stimpel told the commission of inquiry into state capture on Friday.

The inquiry has been investigating allegations of state capture, corruption and fraud at state entities since August 2018. On Thursday, after weeks of probing state-owned freight rail and port operator Transnet, it turned its attention to embattled flag carrier SAA.

Her statement surprised Justice Raymond Zondo, the commission's chair.

"You are not obliged to use it, were you?" said Zondo. "It is something that is available for you to use if you want to?"

"Correct", said Stimpel.

"So why do they charge you with that kind of thing?"

Her suspension letter was shown to the commission. Other charges she faced included "insolence," and breaching confidentially provisions - a charge she said referred to her possessing documents she said she needed as group treasurer. 

She told the commission that, even though she was group treasurer, she had not been allowed to access the BnP Capital loan file. She eventually went into a colleague's unlocked office and took the file that was "lying on the floor" and photocopied it. She told the colleague about it the next day and was almost immediately suspended on July 5, 2016. 

Stimpel said she contacted National Treasury, sent an email to the office of the Public Protector and lastly contacted the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) to express her concerns around the R15bn contract, for which BnP was set to earn R256m in fees. 

She denied speaking to the media. 

Blowing the whistle 

Stimpel said she had been warned by colleagues not to go to the SAA board with her concerns about the BnP contract, or try to blow the whistle internally, as she would immediately be suspended.

She told the commission she realised she could lose her job, but could not "sit by and let this happen".

She approached OUTA, who put her in touch with law firm Webber Wentzel. Webber Wentzel, in mid-July 2016 sent SAA a letter of demand to stop the contract with BnP based on the evidence she gave them.

On July 21 – two weeks after she had been suspended and the same day Webber Wentzel was set to bring an urgent motion in the high court to block the contract - SAA put out a press statement to say it had terminated the services of BnP Capital as its financial services provider.

But Stimpel wasn't rewarded by her superiors and her suspension process continued. 

Later in July she was informed of the reasons for her suspension, she said. These included "insolence" and breaching SAA's "anonymous reporting policy", among other allegations of misconduct. She denies she did anything wrong. 

She took her case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, but said that SAA never arrived for conciliation meetings. The meetings were postponed five or six times, she said. 

She told the commisison that, in early 2017, on advice from her lawyers, she chose to settle with the airline. 

The commission is still to hear evidence from SAA employees implicated in Stimpel's evidence, including former SAA chief financial officer Phumeza Nhantsi, as well as representatives of BnP Capital. 

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