TWO years ago, prosecutions boss Menzi Simelane told me that he didn’t care if the state spent R1bn sending Dave King to jail for breaking the tax laws — it would be money well spent.
It was a curious statement, first because it implied Simelane was a man of high principle while at the same time suggesting the Scottish-born King was something of a fiendish Al Capone character, on whom all the might of the state should be expended.
The truth, on both counts, is very different. Simelane, as we know, was booted from his position by the Constitutional Court last October, essentially for not being a fit and proper person.
But his high-handed statement had come months after the NPA vetoed a “settlement” in 2009 that would have seen King pay R636m to close the book on a tax dispute dating back to 2002.
No, Simelane said, we’ll put that fiendish King in jail before we do any dirty backroom deal.
So, news this week that King has, in fact, reached some settlement over certain assets in the long-running soap opera that has become his tax dispute was a welcome sign. Let’s hope this thaw in the relationship is a precursor to a larger settlement of the entire sorry mess.
Because, let’s face it, government’s ham-fisted pursuit of King hasn’t reflected well on its ability to nail those who it believes have wronged it.
In particular, the National Prosecuting Authority has been embarrassed by King in a way that ought to provide a fillip to anyone plotting any halfway well-constructed white-collar con.
Last August — more than a decade after the event — the NPA finally took King to court over 37 counts of fraud for supposedly defrauding companies like Old Mutual and lying to the JSE when he made R1bn by selling shares in a company called Specialised Outsourcing in 1999.
It would have been one of the country’s most important corporate fraud cases. Ignore the fact that Specialised Outsourcing does not exist any more, ignore the fact that witnesses would be hard-pressed to remember what happened 12 years before.
No matter, the cocky NPA assured us: it had spent the last decade firming up a cast-iron case, it had impeccable witnesses, nothing could go wrong.
So, it was a surprise to these witnesses when the NPA simply closed its case last September after calling only five of its 71 expert witnesses.
Judge Margaret Victor acquitted King, slamming the NPA for failing to put up a case.
One witness called the NPA’s bungling “astounding” and “incomprehensible”.
The bottom line remains: if a guy is really guilty of what you say he is, and you can’t prove it in a decade, you really have no business being in the law-enforcement game.
For King, this only suggested his claims of being victimised and hounded by the NPA in order to settle his tax case were justified.
Now, there are some good, solid professionals at the NPA, who do know what they’re doing. Not all of them have been suspended, like Glynnis Breytenbach.
But there are others — usually in management — for whom a weekly fitting of red noses and oversized shoes wouldn’t be an entirely inappropriate use of money.
Partly thanks to their blundering, King almost has government over a barrel.
In recent weeks, King has -rightly -used the judgment to travel overseas to “unfreeze” cash that had been seized in Jersey and Guernsey.
By all accounts, the overseas courts weren’t amused that all this cash had been frozen more than a decade earlier, yet King hadn’t pleaded to the numerous criminal charges he faced.
Simelane’s sentiment was that a conviction would send a message of “no tolerance” to South Africa’s businessmen. So this is why government has thrown vast sums of money -estimated at more than R400m — on this principle. Along the way, it turned down R636m from King.
Altogether, that’s hundreds of millions at which the government has turned up its nose.
Disregarding the merits of the actual charges against King, the really worrying thing is the message that this decade-long circus act will send to the real Al Capones of South Africa’s corporate sector.
Do your worst, it says, and if you’re really, really unlucky, you’ll face a trial in about a decade or so.
The best thing for the state agencies would be to settle this sorry mess, bank a settlement from King, and sit in a dark room until the red cheeks fade.
* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times