- A former legal secretary at the firm Ronald Bobroff & Partners is serving seven years in prison after admitting to stealing nearly R2 million.
- She says the attorneys, who are under investigation by the Hawks, masterminded the scheme.
- They, on the other hand, say she defrauded their practice and was rightfully arrested.
One way or another, the case of fugitive attorneys Ronald and Darren Bobroff is inching forward.
Zenobia Venter, once a legal secretary in their practice, has been jailed on 205 counts of fraud and theft and has begun serving a seven-year sentence at Pretoria Central Prison.
Venter confessed to stealing over R1.9 million from Road Accident Fund (RAF) clients via a scheme she says was masterminded by her former employers.
Venter, who worked for the firm from 2006 until 2016, pleaded guilty on all counts.
The Bobroffs, meanwhile, say they were defrauded.
A brief rewind: Ronald Bobroff – formerly president of the Law Society in South Africa – along with his son, Darren Bobroff, fled the country in 2016, days before they were due to hand themselves over to the Hawks.
The pair had specialised in personal injury claims at Ronald Bobroff & Partners, of which both were directors. A large number of their cases had related to vehicle accidents.
They were struck from the roll of attorneys amid allegations that they had fleeced clients out of hundreds of millions of rands. Some accusations stated that they had charged contingency fees above the 25% cap specified by the Contingency Fees Act on Road Accident Fund payouts; other allegations related to compensation due to accident victims, where the Bobroffs were accused of stealing funds that should have been paid out to clients from the RAF.
One of the more prominent accusers was former Bafana Bafana footballer Eric September, whose sporting career was cut short after a car accident left him with head, leg and spinal injuries. September himself was later jailed for the rape and murder of his wife.
According to September, the RAF paid out R1.4 million to his attorneys in 1999. He says he never received it.
The Bobroffs, too, denied receiving it.
The RAF said the money was paid out, but according to City Press, declined to investigate further.
In March 2016, when the Bobroffs fled South Africa, they were facing charges of fraud and theft and were facing possible prosecution by the NPA. By 2018, it was widely reported they were the subject of an Interpol red notice.
They are currently believed to be in Australia.
The Bobroffs have denied wrongdoing throughout. Rather, they said, they fled for fear of their lives being in danger.
Ronald Bobroff, in an extensive response to Fin24, stood by this.
He added that the practice's trust account was "balanced to the cent".
Bobroff Sr said Venter was "rightfully" found guilty of extensive fraud and theft. He described her plea as "engineered fabrications", and stated that her fraud had been perpetrated against their practice.
A website hosted at bobroffronald.com, last updated in 2019, further states that there is a "relentless vendetta" against the Bobroffs by Discovery, its "highly paid legal army and their proxies".
According to Bobroff, the feud with Discovery began when he claimed the latter required accident victims to claim from third parties like the RAF.
Discovery has repeatedly denied this.
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On 13 March 2020, one Gezina Johanna Venter, commonly known as Zenobia, aged 61, was sentenced to seven years' direct imprisonment.
Her guilty plea, filed at the Specialised Commercial Crimes Court in Johannesburg, states that while in the employ of the Bobroffs, she stole an amount of R1 902 223.05, half of which went to her, and half of which was paid over to Ronald and/or Darren Bobroff.
According to Venter, Bobroff Sr approached her at the beginning of 2011 with a "proposed plan" to make extra money. She claims she was "extremely fearful" of him and agreed to the scheme partly out of fear for her job, and partly out of financial need, as she was divorced and supporting five people, including her aged mother.
She admits benefitting to the tune of nearly R1 million.
The mythical Dr Botha
The scheme, she says, worked as follows: On each client's case that is submitted to the RAF, there are a number of expert witnesses – mostly doctors – who submit reports to the court.
These doctors are paid by the law firm from proceeds of the funds recovered by the RAF, and when accounts are prepared to give to clients, the relevant amounts are deducted as a disbursement.
The firm, she says, had previously used a Dr Botha, but his practice had closed as he had emigrated.
"Ronald Bobroff was aware that my mother's surname was Botha, and he accordingly proposed a scheme where we add onto the clients' accounts as a disbursement, a fake account for Dr MM Botha, generally for the sum of R8 500, and sometimes R17 000," the plea reads.
According to Venter, she would add the fictitious Botha entry to the clients' accounts, complete the cheque requisitions and submit these to the Ronald Bobroff & Partners accounts department.
"Generally, the cheques were signed by Ronald and Darren Bobroff, both of whom were in on the theft," says Venter.
According to Venter, the cheques deposited into the Botha account were typically either transferred into her own bank account or withdrawn using her mother's ATM card. Her mother, she stresses, was innocent of wrongdoing.
"I kept no records of the amounts drawn in cash and then paid to me by the Bobroffs," she adds.
She describes this is as "one of many of Ronald and Darren's various scams to defraud their clients".
Speaking to Fin24 on Thursday, the Bobroffs' attorney, John Cameron, dismissed Venter's account as "hogwash".
Cameron – who does not deal with the father-son pair in person – challenged Venter to produce proof that the stolen money had been transferred into a bank account held by one of the Bobroffs.
The sensational nature of the case means any development is likely to "get some people excited", he reasoned. However, he added, "so far, none of the accusations have ever materialised".
"Where's the crime?" he asked.
"The Bobroffs are a little gun shy in terms of being accused," he added. "They're getting a little bit tired of being falsely accused."
While Ronald Bobroff previously made headlines for describing his financial situation as "living off the smell of an oil rag", he told Fin24 his financial situation was "none of anyone's business" but that he was grateful for the support of family and friends.
Cameron says he believes "things are tight".
In 2019, news broke that the NPA's Asset Forfeiture Unit had obtained an order in the Pretoria High Court forfeiting a cash amount of over R103 million. The money was held in two bank accounts in Israel, in the names of Ronald and Darren Bobroff, the NPA said at the time.
The deadline to file heads of argument in the appeal against this ruling is 11 August 2020. Cameron anticipates the case could be heard near the end of this year or early next year.
He says he's confident of a victory.
The NPA, for its part, told Fin24 that the investigation into the Bobroffs was ongoing and "once the investigation is finalised, a decision will be made regarding their extradition".