Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2001-03-19 Reporter: Editorial Editor:

The Plumbers


Publication  Business Day
Date 2001-03-19
Reporter Editorial
Web Link


Those who followed Richard Nixon's presidency in the early 1970s will remember the "plumbers". The function of this team of loyal servants of the man eventually brought down by Watergate was to fix "leaks" of information to the media seen to be damaging to Nixon's interests.

Now it seems that SA can boast its own plumbing agency. Knowing governments' dislike of information flows they cannot themselves manage, this is perhaps not too surprising.

The problem is that, in our case, it is being run by an institution that enjoys constitutional independence from government, but is giving the impression of acting as its servant.

The auditor-general's mission to track down the source of unspecified leaks related to the arms procurement package investigation raises all sorts of worrying questions.

Without knowing exactly what he is looking for, it is difficult to feel anything other than a general concern. Obviously the auditor-general is entitled to look internally into possible breaches of confidentiality by his own staff.

But that does not explain why his people were sent to grill former special investigating unit head Willem Heath (who was excluded from the team more than a year ago). The same applies to their questioning of Richard Young, owner of a firm that believes it was unfairly deprived of a business opportunity in relation to the corvette acquisition.

One rumour has it that the joint investigating team - which also includes the public protector and the national public prosecutor - is wanting to track down who leaked to the Mail & Guardian details of an early draft of their report.

That enabled the newspaper to publish a story about the team's investigation into gifts allegedly received by a senior naval officer from members of the consortium, which won the contract to supply corvettes. Those details were excised from the final report.

Whatever the veracity of this rumour, the auditor-general's role is disturbing. If anyone was going to be conducting such an investigation, the auditor-general's office should be the last.

We would not be surprised (though we would not be pleased) if it were to emerge that the national public prosecutor's investigators were doing this kind of plumbing work. Or even military intelligence - though that would raise a different set of constitutional questions.

But why is the auditor-general, whose function is to monitor government and its management of public finances, doing this work?

It is especially ironic that his team had its hands full looking for leaks in a week when the Financial Mail uncovered new detail about shareholdings in the then Log-Tek - an armaments industry company with an interest in bidding for a slice of the package - by late former defence minister Joe Modise and the chairmen of the two main defence parastatals, Denel and Armscor.

This was not so much a leak as the product of patient investigation, something the joint investigating team should have been expected to uncover itself, given its greater resources.

As we have said before, there is a danger that a stream of disclosures of facts left uncovered by the team could have a debilitating effect on governance in SA, adding to widespread suspicions that, in some respects, especially where ruling party loyalists were involved, the investigation was less than thorough.

Add to that the perception that investigators are more interested in plugging leaks about those oversights than uncovering the truth, and it doesn't look very good at all.

With acknowledgement to Business Day.