Parliament Backs Heath
Cape Town - Chairman of Parliament's public accounts committee Gavin Woods says he is both concerned and alarmed at the government's move to exclude the Heath unit from an investigation into the R43-billion arms deal.
He said there were a number of discrepancies in the reasons given by Justice Minister Penuell Maduna for his recommendation on Monday to President Thabo Mbeki that the unit not take part in the probe.
Woods' committee recommended last year that the Heath unit and three other agencies - the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, the Auditor General and the Public Protector - carry out the investigation.
He said on Monday one of the aspects that alarmed him most was Maduna's implication that his formal request as committee chairman to the president in December last year, for a proclamation clearing the way for Judge Willem Heath's involvement, did not reflect the wishes of Parliament.
He said the committee report, adopted by Parliament, indicated quite clearly the wish that Heath be involved.
"On that understanding, I wrote to the president."
Maduna had also suggested that the other three agencies did not want Heath to take part.
Woods said he had correspondence which indicated that at least two of them did want to work with Heath.
The greatest discrepancy was Maduna's statement that to refer new matters to the unit would be contrary to the spirit of a recent judgment on the constitutionality of Heath's position as unit head. The Constitutional Court has given a year's grace for the appointment of a head who is not a judge.
Maduna, said Woods, did not say that referring new cases would be contrary to the actual wording of the judgment.
"No-one has suggested that in that final year, Heath should not be given further work to do," Woods said.
He also rejected Maduna's statement that there was no evidence of unlawful appropriation of public funds or assets in the arms deal.
"To us and other parliaments around the world the hard facts of wrongdoing are not necessarily what stimulates an investigation." The committee had called for the probe after the Auditor General pointed out procedural weaknesses in the procurement process, and its own hearings confirmed that, and after officials involved were unable to answer questions satisfactorily.
International experience was that these sorts of weaknesses were most likely to lead to irregularities and wrongdoing.
He said it was "quite alarming" for a government minister, especially a justice minister, to demand proof of wrongdoing before accepting the need for an investigation. If there was any reason for doubt, it had to be checked out.
"Point by point we are analysing his letter (of recommendation to Mbeki), and we are finding alarming discrepancies in his justification," he said.
Woods said that while he was concerned at Maduna's recommendation, he did not know if he could contest "the inevitability of it".
The public accounts committee had included the Heath unit in the probe because of the legal mandate and specific skills the unit offered.
"So when we find now that he has been excluded, we have a sense of there's a gap. That is the basis for our concern."
He believed the committee, which will meet next Monday for the first time this year, would have to focus on ways of filling that gap, and ensuring that the investigation was comprehensive and thorough.
The committee was meeting for a four-day workshop, but there would be a formal plenary on Monday to pass resolutions and take decisions, and the arms deal had been put on the agenda for that session.
Woods said he imagined the committee would be keen for him to report back on his interactions with the executive and the media over the past few months.
The members were aware of their role as perhaps the most important oversight body in Parliament. However, the law said the president had the final decision, and nothing in law allowed the committee to override him.
"At the end of the day he has to decide what is right and what is wrong," Woods said.
He said he was concerned that the controversy should not damage working relationships within the multi-party committee.
"One doesn't want to react emotionally. We're a committee that tries not to be party political."
With acknowledgement to Sapa and News24.