Sunday, August 14, 2011

Taxpayers to pay Travelgate debt

August 13 2011

Taxpayers will fork out millions of rands to pay off debts racked up by MPs in the Travelgate scandal.

Despite numerous undertakings to act against MPs over the years since the scandal broke, Parliament has failed to recover about R12.2 million owed by its members after the institution controversially purchased the debtors’ book from the liquidators of Bathong Travel in 2009.

Bathong was one of six travel agencies implicated in the infamous and unresolved travel voucher scandal.

Information released this week has revealed that when the Bathong debts were purchased for R380 000 MPs still owed about R5.4m, of which the liquidators had managed to recover only R413 303 – or 7.6 percent – from 19 of the 89 MPs on the agency’s books.

More recent information has shown that this amount eventually rose to about R17m as more “debts” were uncovered, leaving Parliament in the red to the tune of about R12.2m. This debt will now be written off, Secretary to Parliament Zingile Dingani told journalists in Cape Town this week, which leaves taxpayers to foot the bill.

Parliament buried this information until Eastern Cape High Court Judge Sytze Alkema ordered its release on July 28, when the Centre for Social Accountability, an NGO from Rhodes University, successfully challenged Parliament’s refusal to provide the information via the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

Judge Alkema had harsh words for Parliament, saying it was clear throughout the process that it was more concerned with its public image – and those of its members – than with getting to the truth or collecting the outstanding debts.

“The above entries (from parliamentary minutes) indicate a strong desire, for reasons not known but giving rise to wide speculation, on the part of Parliament to prevent those claims from being pursued. It was particularly anxious to protect those claims from public scrutiny in a court of law,” the judge said.

“Parliament was acutely aware of the public interest in the matter … It went to some lengths to prevent the publication of information contained in the schedules (the list of 89) in order to protect it against adverse public opinion – even purchasing the claims. But public opinion is not the same as public interest. Public interest is at stake when the structure of institutional democracy is threatened by a culture of ‘secretive and unresponsive’ government,” Judge Alkema concluded.

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