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Victoria drama escalates

Mohloai Mpesi

The long-drawn battle for the control of the Victoria hotel took an unexpected turn last week when agents of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) stormed the hotel allegedly under the guard of heavily armed police officers demanding to see the hotel Curator. Newsday has learnt.

According to the curator Matsobane Putsoa, who was appointed to oversee the running of the hotel in 2019 by the court, the team led by DCEO staff members Tsotang Likotsi and one Phasumane in particular stormed the building asking for documents that proving the legality of Putsoa’s appointment for the curatorship job.

The administration of the embattled hotel had to be placed under curatorship following a 2019 court order over operational irregularities involving the late famous business kingpin Thabiso Tlelai’s running of the government-owned facility.

The directorate detained Victoria two years back after learning of irregularities in the transactions of the hotel which among others included corruption and illegal operation of the hotel by Tlelai.

In its findings, the anti-corruption body had discovered that the Victoria property belongs to the Government of Lesotho (GOL) and not Tlelai who had been operating it under his Sobita Enterprises over two decades, dating back to 2002.

According to an affidavit furnished by DCEO’s Likotsi, the tender was awarded irregularly.

At all material time and during the award of the contract to Sobita, Timothy Thahane was the Minister of Finance and Development Planning while the current Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro was his Principal Secretary (PS).

The contract was supposedly borne out of the procurement breach and irregularities to the total disregard of the procurement laws and principles which gave effect to an appropriate procurement system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost effective.

According to the affidavit, it was established that the contract between the GOL and Sobita was tainted, flawed and riddled with serious offences, the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning was, however, not authorised neither was any of its officers allowed to use public stores nor was Sobita authorised by any law to use public stores, Victoria Hotel being a public stores and property of the GOL.

It is further reported that on 16 December 2002 the GOL entered into a sublease contract agreement with Sobita. Tlelai was at all material time director and shareholder of the company. The renovating, upgrading and furnishing of Victoria hotel was to be the responsibility of Sobita which was expected to spend a maximum amount of M2 000 000, and upgrade the hotel within three years after commencement date like Don Suite Hotels of South African based Don Group Limited.

Putsoa said the DCEO officers in the company of the armed police officers pounced on him demanding that “I showed them the letter and the one where they (DCEO) asked if I can handle the job of curatorship. I was frightened and thought that maybe I was being investigated. If the DCEO officers were on their own I wouldn’t have minded but I was scared when I realised the escort of the police and didn’t know why they came with them, maybe they thought I was dangerous.

“I went home to fetch some files and they came behind me. I consulted my lawyer to advise me on this matter.”

“He advised that we should go to DCEO offices. We showed them the papers proving how I got the job” he said.

He added that, “To my knowledge, DCEO sued the owner of this building who won a case last December and with my understanding the building had to return to him. The Directorate took appeal and asked that the judgment should not be executed; technically this property is between Tlelai and the government of Lesotho,” he said adding that he submits reports every month including the finance details to DCEO.

Meawhile, approached for a comment, DCEO Acting Director General Sefako Seema stated that the DCEO staffers who went to the hotel went to do their normal work of checking out the reports, citing that there was no harm or intimidation intended.

“They went there to do their regular job of checking the reports and nothing else.

“I am an overall overseer of this institution; I know that they went there to do the job that I have mentioned, and they agree that they went there with police, but the aversion that there were armed police officers is a lie,” he said.

Sobita’s contract was extended on April 13, 2012 according to the affidavit for the period of 10 years with effect from July 1, 2013 to June 31, 2023 and was signed by Thahane on behalf of government.

In a Memo dated 13 February 2019 from the legal department of the Ministry of Finance to the Principal Secretary it is discernable that Sobita was not honouring its obligation to pay monthly rentals. And that it had failed to respond to same even after having been requested to.

The Memo clearly advised for the termination of the contract on the basis of no-payment of rentals, nullity of an addendum for extension of the contract on the basis of no-registration in terms of the Deeds Registry Act, 1967, and illegal trading of Sobita on the basis of being struck off from the company registry.

Acting on the basis of the advice, the Deputy Principal Secretary Motena Tšolo wrote a letter to Sobita that it should show cause why it could not be evicted from the premises at Victoria Hotel and Molimo Nthuse.

On February 21, 2019, Sobita according to the affidavit, the extension was lawful; but eight days later Tšolo wrote a letter of eviction informing Tlelai’s company to vacate the premises.

Meanwhile, the anticorruption body suspended former Director General Mahlomola Manyokole insisted that Tlelai and Sobita had a case to answer, thus, shutting down the premises after attaining preservation order to stop the money which was said to have been used unlawfully where every cent was deposited to the owner of the company, Thabiso Tlelai who was residing in South Africa.

DCEO had spearheaded investigations of money laundering, fraud and corruption and revealed that money amounting to over M34million was transferred to South Africa over the past three years since 2019, and were yet to determine how much has already been looted since 2002 when the contract started, estimated to more than hundred million.

The affidavit also lay into the role played by Thahane who was Finance and Development Planning Minister being “very instrumental and pretty much involved in the letting or awarding of contract.

As the story developed, Tlelai won the case against DCEO last December but the directorate was quick to file an appeal which will be heard in April this year.

Tlelai through Sobita Enterprsies which has run the hotel over two decades is also alleged to have been given the tender irregularly, according to an affidavit by DCEO’s Tsotang Likotsi. 

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