Sun, 21 Oct 2018
11
Johannesburg

A former South African Revenue Service (SARS) executive confronted journalist Stephan Hofstatter at the launch of his book, License to Loot, demanding an apology from him for his role in the so-called SARS "rogue unit" saga on Thursday.

Pete Richer, who resigned as group executive for strategic planning and risk in May 2015, angrily confronted Hofstatter at the event at Love Books in Melville, saying that Hofstatter and his colleagues at the Sunday Times caused enormous damage to people's lives, careers and families.

Hofstatter was part of a team of journalists that published numerous stories about the existence of a "rogue unit" between October 2014 and October 2015.

The stories were later found to be baseless and the newspaper apologised for its reporting. The rogue unit narrative was used as the pretext for Tom Moyane, who was appointed SARS commissioner in September 2014, closing down the taxman's specialist enforcement units.

It led to an exodus of expert and senior staff. Moyane is suspended and acting SARS commissioner Mark Kingon has said he is resurrecting the specialist units.

Richer told Hofstatter that his reputation as a risk specialist had been destroyed and that he was forced to leave SARS because of the Sunday Times' reporting.

"Not only me, but good people like Ivan Pillay, Johann van Loggerenberg, Adrian Lackay..." Richer said the modus operandi when destroying an institution such as SARS was to disseminate false information that is then used to force an investigation and discredit individuals.

"It happened at SARS, at the Hawks, at IPID (Independent Police Investigative Directorate) and at the police," he said and accused Hofstatter and his colleagues of playing into the hands of state capture.

He said no one at the Sunday Times had ever asked him for comment about the rogue unit stories and that journalists relied on information given to them by a smuggler of rhino horns.

"I lost my job at SARS. You set up scurrilous unethical journalists to set up a fiction to get rid of hard-working civic servants," Richer told Hofstatter.

"SARS' investigative capabilities have been broken down. We were highly rated by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)...the British came to see how we do things...it's now decimated."

Hofstatter, who listened intently to Richer, apologised that Richer was never approached for comment.

"I apologise if anything I did hurt you personally. That was never my intention. I always tried to stand up for the downtrodden and expose corruption."

He admitted that there were "gaps in my knowledge" and that, in hindsight, he should have stepped back to look at the story he and his colleagues were investigating.

"It was a chaotic, upside down time. We were under pressure for scoops. We should have stood back," he said, but explained that as many as nine reporters and editors were involved in investigating the story.

"I cannot speak on behalf of the Sunday Times... we have apologised extensively and it is available for everyone to read."

In response to a question on whether he would be willing to testify in front of the Nugent commission of inquiry into tax administration, Hofstatter said he wanted to move on from the episode.

He did not address the SARS matter in his book, which is focused on Eskom, because "frankly, I'm not ready yet", he said.

Richer said afterwards that if Hofstatter believed what he said during the event and if he was remorseful, he should make a submission to the Nugent commission.

"He should write about what happened with their reporting. They don't understand what the impact of their stories were. We had to bail out our friends with mortgage payments because they lost their jobs, because of this."

Also present at the launch were protesting members of a group called Johannesburg Against Injustice.

"We are here to protest against Stephan Hofstatter for his role in state capture, in particular what he wrote to undermine the SARS rogue unit, as it was called, general dishonesty and trash," said the organisation's David Lydall.

"As an active organisation we have been around for two years. We actively fought against state capture. We are part of Future South Africa and the Save South Africa coalition," Lydall said.

"We are very much aware of this sort of thing. Obviously, we have read Jacques Pauw's book, and Johann van Loggerenberg's book which reference him (Hofstatter) directly and the sort of things he did. So when we heard that this was happening today we decided to make sure that the story is told," he said.

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