Govt recovers stolen M18, 6 million

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. . . recovered money is part of the M54 million looted by Finance ministry officials

Bereng Mpaki

THE government has received M18, 6 million of the M54 million that was allegedly stolen by Finance ministry staffers in September 2021.

Finance Minister, Thabo Sophonea, received a dummy cheque of that amount from members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS), Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), who are jointly investigating the case.

Over M50 million was stolen from the government by the finance ministry officials under the pretence of paying suppliers last year.

Since then, 12 people have been charged with fraud, theft and money laundering in connection with the case.

Speaking at the handover ceremony in Maseru yesterday, police Senior Superintendent, Piti Khutlang, said the police, DCEO and FIU have been collaborating on the case following a tip-off about financial irregularities in the treasury department of the Finance ministry.

He said the fraud was discovered by the treasury officials during reconciliation process and they subsequently raised the alarm.

The local investigators managed to track the funds after teaming up with investigators from South Africa.

“In September 2021, we received information from the Finance ministry that numerous transactions had been paid out of the Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL) but they were not reflecting in their own records,” SSP Khutlang said.

“We investigated the matter and then discovered that the fraud was committed using shell companies in South Africa and in Lesotho. We managed to recover some of the funds after asking our South African counterparts to intercept any movement of the funds from the concerned companies’ bank accounts.”

He said although it had initially been reported that M50 million had been stolen, their investigations revealed that the correct figure was about M54 million.

Although M18, 6 million was handed over yesterday, the total amount recovered in South Africa so far is M23, 9 million recovered in South Africa. The remaining M5, 3 million is yet to be returned to Lesotho.

Another M12, 2 million has already been recovered in Lesotho.

This means that all in all, M36, 9 million has so far been recovered, SSP Khutlang said.

He said the rest of the funds were locked in movable assets like vehicles, immovable assets like land and buildings.

Eleven vehicles worth M1, 5 million have also been located in Lesotho while other vehicles, whose value is yet to be ascertained, have been seized by the South African authorities.

“The total estimated value of the funds that we have managed to track down is M40 101 034, 09 but the funds that have already been handed to the government are M18 610 601. 10.

“Twelve suspects have appeared in court in connection with the case. We are continuing with investigations and more suspects could be discovered,” he said.

On his part, Police Commissioner, Holomo Molibeli commended the collaborative work of the three law enforcement agencies in the case. He said the work needed to be expanded to fighting the escalating Lesotho’s crimes.

“Crimes, especially the killings of people have escalated and this discourages investment in the country. We need to extend this joint operation beyond this case,” Commissioner Molibeli said.

Acting DCEO director general, Sefako Seema, said while they did a good job in the case, they had been hampered by a serious lack of resources.

“We are constrained by shortage of resources in our work. We also need continuous training on information technology for our personnel to be conversant with latest digital systems.

“I wish we could have a special fund set aside so that we do not have to request money each time there is an emergency case that we have to investigate. This is important because criminals are faster and better organised than we are,” Adv Seema said.

Mr Sophonea bemoaned corruption among civil servants. He said there was need to reform the civil service to ensure that workers refrained from stealing public funds.

“It is clear that most civil servants are fraudulent. We must find a way to reform our civil service to root out corruption,” Mr Sophonea said.

The suspects who have charged with the theft of the funds are Lehlohonolo Selate, Nteliseng Lawrence, Mookho Rafono, Tlali Mokoaleli, Thabang Nkoe, Hlabathe Phafoli, Thithili Makhesi, Maqoboto Lepolesa and Fako Molefe.

Selate is believed to be the mastermind. He remains in custody, while his co-accused are out on M5000 bail and 100 000 surety each.

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