Human rights lawyer and activist Advocate Seth Nthai has vehemently denied that he “moonlighted” as a government lawyer after being disbarred for trying to solicit a R5 million bribe – and says his former company secretary’s claims to the contrary are aimed solely at extorting money from him.
But those denials did not seem to convince the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), which has launched an investigation into the evidence given by Marietjie Jansen van Vuuren, the former company secretary at Nthai’s Phillipus International Consulting Services company, as part of her ongoing labour dispute with the advocate.
Jansen van Vuuren has taken Nthai to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) for allegedly not paying her salary for 11 months, as well as for constructive dismissal.
The SIU is conducting an in-depth investigation into allegations of widespread criminality at the Office of the State Attorney, which is responsible for allocating cases involving the government to private advocates.
Some of Jansen van Vuuren’s most damaging evidence against Nthai – who is currently fighting a serious legal challenge to his 2019 readmission as an advocate in the Supreme Court of Appeal – concern allegations that he wrote legal opinions for several government departments under the name of another advocate: Sophia Masimene.
Jansen van Vuuren alleges that Masimene then split the fees she earned with Nthai – conduct that is legally prohibited.
Jansen van Vuuren included a statement of account she said she had been instructed to type up for Masimene, by Nthai, as proof of this “moonlighting” practice.
Nthai has, however, told the CCMA that these allegations were “typical tabloid tactics” by Jansen van Vuuren “in the hope of causing me sufficient embarrassment; to settle her attempt to extort money she is not entitled to from me”.
“It is rather unfortunate that it has become the habit in modern society that individuals (in this instance Jansen van Vuuren) deem it necessary to effectively ‘threaten’ to smear my name and reputation in the public arena, with the sole intention to ‘extort’ money from me, and to solicit sympathy from the CCMA,” Nthai states.
He maintains that he has known Masimene for many years and she “considered me as a mentor”.
“Over the year, and on various occasions she asked me for assistance; which I did. Importantly, I never asked Adv Masimene for any payment for any mentorship or advice I gave her in this regard; nor did she ever offer same to me. Lastly, I never received payment from her in that regard.”
He does not provide any explanation for emails which appear to have been sent from his business email account, in which he issues Jansen van Vuuren with instructions on how to edit certain attached legal opinions, which then appear to have been written under Masimene’s name.
Instead, he claims that Jansen van Vuuren “also did typing work for Adv Masimene, for which she was paid”.
In answer to queries from News24 about Masimene’s response to allegations that she had acted as a “front” for Nthai and had unlawfully split fees with him, her attorney had previously stated that she regarded these claims as “defamatory and scandalous”.
Masimene’s attorney has also written to Jansen van Vuuren to demand that she remove the legal opinions and emails she relies on to prove that Nthai was unlawfully practicing as an advocate, as they were “confidential”.
She made no mention of Jansen van Vuuren’s alleged typing work for Masimene.
In addition to writing legal opinions, Jansen van Vuuren also claims Nthai wrote lawyers’ letters for clients – and then sent those letters under the letterhead and signature of another legal firm, Bhadrish Dhaya Attorneys.
Nthai does not directly address those allegations in his response to Jansen van Vuuren’s CCMA application.
Nor does he address a 7 June 2018 email, apparently sent from his email account, in which he appears to issue instructions how particular attached letters should be scanned, signed and sent.
Instead, he simply copies and pastes an email sent by Dhaya to Jansen Van Vuuren, in which he accused her of unlawfully disclosing his clients’ confidential information in her CCMA application.
Dhaya did not respond to questions about whether he disputed Jansen van Vuuren’s claims that his firm had acted as a front for Nthai to provide legal services to his clients or provide any explanation for Nthai’s alleged email instructions to him.
Rather than specifically addressing the emails and legal opinions that Jansen van Vuuren contend clearly show that he was unlawfully practising as an advocate, Nthai has broadly rubbished her claims as lies.
He further relies on an affidavit that she herself, had filed as part of her evidence in her CCMA application – in which she stated under oath that Nthai was not practising as an advocate – as proof that he is innocent of any wrongdoing.
In her application to the CCMA, Jansen van Vuuren stated that one of the reasons her employment with Nthai became “intolerable” was because of his “unethical behaviour in that he continued to practise law after being prohibited by the High Court to do so in 2013…and not only did he require of me to assist him in doing so but he also required me to cover up the fact that he was practising law”.
Limpopo High Court Judge President Ephraim Makgoba and Judge Peter Mabuse last year wholeheartedly accepted that Nthai had not practised as an advocate since his highly publicised removal from the Bar in 2013 and found that there was “no chance” he would break the legal profession’s rules of practice in the future.
Nthai admitted during his readmission application that, while acting on behalf of the South African government in 2009, he had tried to solicit a R5 million bribe from Italian businesses locked in a dispute with the state over mining rights, which the Italians had wanted to settle.
Nthai was recorded not only promising to make the case go away if the businesses paid the bribe to him into a foreign account, but also disclosing key aspects of the government’s strategy in fighting the case to one of the Italian CEOs involved in it.
He was never charged for his self-confessed corruption.
The Johannesburg Society of Advocates (JSA) and the General Council of the Bar (GCB) are both appealing the Limpopo High Court’s 2019 decision that Nthai was genuinely reformed and should be allowed to return to the Bar.
Jansen van Vuuren claims that, following Nthai’s readmission as an advocate, she was “hounded by the media and private investigators” seeking evidence that Nthai had practised law while he was disbarred.
Jansen van Vuuren stated:
I was so terrified of these investigators that I lied to them just to get them to leave me alone. (Nthai) was fully aware of this, and that it was as a result of his unlawful behaviour, yet he did nothing to alleviate the problem.
Nthai, however, “categorically” denies these “defamatory and scandalous” allegations and insists Jansen van Vuuren’s affidavit is proof that he did not practise as an advocate while he was disbarred.
He has further dismissed Jansen van Vuuren’s testimony that he owes her 11 month’s salary and 15 days leave.
Jansen van Vuuren’s “true reason for resigning”, Nthai says, “related to the fact that she was unhappy with my refusal to grant her early leave during December 2019”.
He further argues that Jansen van Vuuren’s constructive dismissal application is 155 days late and says she has failed to provide a “reasonable explanation” for the delay. He insists the case should be thrown out on that basis alone.
Jansen van Vuuren is expected to file a response to Nthai’s accusations against her in the coming days.
While it is unclear what the CCMA will make of this strange and increasingly caustic labour dispute, it is apparent that it has already sparked at least one major law enforcement investigation.
Should the evidence filed by Jansen van Vuuren remain significantly uncontested, it will also almost certainly form part of the JSA’s and GCB’s attempts to prove that Nthai should not be allowed to continue practising as an advocate – because he has not genuinely reformed.