I was set up, Tšolo claims
- as he denies signing botched M1, 7 billion solar power deal,
- ex-minister in angry, dramatic exchanges with PAC members.
FORMER Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Temeki Tšolo, has angrily denied signing the controversial 2018 M1, 7 billion deal with Germany company, Frazer Solar, for the supply of solar power to Lesotho.
Mr Tšolo issued his angry denial during a dramatic, tension-filled session of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in Maseru yesterday.
Mr Tšolo told the PAC members, who included former cabinet minister, Nyapane Kaya, that his signature had been forged. He said he was “set up for failure” by unnamed people who had inked his signature on the botched deal which has resulted in the government being ordered by a South arbitrator to pay off £50 million (M856 million) in damages to Frazer Solar. This for allegedly breaching a 2018 contract the company claims to have entered into with the previous Thomas Thabane-led government for the supply of solar water heating systems, solar generated electricity, LED lights and solar lanterns over four years.
Frazer Solar insists it had a valid agreement that was signed by Mr Tšolo. The project was not implemented due to current Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro’s dogged refusal to sign the financing agreement when he was finance minister under the Thabane government.
Despite his denials, Mr Tšolo was last month named by Energy and Meteorology Principal Secretary, Themba Sopeng, as the man who approved the deal.
Mr Sopeng told parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that Mr Tšolo had made it clear that the deal had the blessings of the then Prime Minister Thabane.
The PAC has launched its own investigations into the deal and former and current government officials have been lined up to testify.
The PAC wants to establish who actually signed the deal on behalf of the state, especially as Mr Tšolo hotly denies appending his signature.
Mr Tšolo and his former secretary, ‘Masentle Ntobaki, testified before the PAC this week. Mr Thabane’s former aide, Hlophe Matla, also testified before the PAC on Tuesday.
Mr Matla denied ever signing the agreement as alleged by the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO).
He said a fortnight ago he was shocked when DCEO investigators showed him a “voluminous contract” which he allegedly signed as a witness to a supply agreement between the government and Frazer Solar.
He said the voluminous contract also bore the signatures of Frazer Solar owner, Robert Frazer, and the former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Temeki Tšolo.
He said Mr Tšolo had been equally surprised when he told him that he had seen his “signature” on the contract. (See story below).
Mr Tšolo has previously denied appending his signature to the controversial deal.
Yesterday he repeated his denials before the PAC.
Mr Tšolo began by telling the PAC how he first met Ms Ntobaki who later became his secretary.
“I found Mme ‘Masentle (Ntobaki) at my office in June 2017. I was meeting her for the first time in my life. I didn’t know her but she was soft-spoken and welcoming. We worked together for a week or so and she was very cooperative.
“I made a decision to hire her as my ministerial secretary and I didn’t know what was going to happen later because you never really get to know a person,” Mr Tšolo said.
The Mafeteng legislator said he first met Mr Frazer between August and September 2017. This after the businessman came to his office with a proposal to do business with the government.
He said he was not even aware that the energy deal was going to be implemented through a M1, 7 billion loan from the German government until recently, when Frazer Solar moved to have Lesotho’s assets garnished in South Africa.
“I said to him, ‘Frazer, I cannot handle this project. You must meet with (then) Finance Minister (Majoro) to present your proposal. I tried many times to make him understand that he needed to meet with the ministers of Development Planning; Finance; Energy and Meteorology; Local Government and Chieftaincy as well as Public Service to sell this idea as they were the relevant ministries. I want to assure this committee that Robert Frazer’s proposal was too good to be true,” Mr Tšolo said.
He said he however, officially opened an inter-ministerial meeting at Durham Link, Maseru, in 2018 to discuss the project. He said he only did so after Ms Ntobaki had told him that he was expected to officially open the meeting. He did not say who expected him to officially open the meeting.
He said he did not sign any agreement with Frazer Solar and the signature that was said to be his had been forged.
“I was not aware that I signed the contract. I was not aware that I signed an agreement with Frazer. If anything, they set me up for failure. That signature does not look like my signature. I write my full names as Temeki Phoenix Tšolo. But, in this thing purported to be a contract, my names are not written in that particular order. Instead it is Tšolo Temeki Phoenix.
“In every government contract, the designation of a person signing the contract on behalf of the state is clearly captured but, in this contract, it is not stated. I submit that that is not my signature. Frazer frequented my office. Frazer has met everyone in this country. I want it to be recorded that this is fraud at its best, if ministers are set up for failure, this is a classical example,” Mr Tšolo said, without specifying who had set him up.
But his testimony was not without drama and angry exchanges with some of the PAC members who cross-examined him.
He did not take kindly to Mr Kaya, a former health minister in the Thabane government, asking him what his state of mind was like in the period leading up to the alleged signing of the botched agreement.
“Honourable chairperson (Kimetso Mathaba), I want to start by saying, I have been noting statements by the honourable member of parliament for Mafeteng (Tšolo),” Mr Kaya said.
“In the many questions that he is being asked to respond to, he keeps saying, ‘I never thought, I never understand, I don’t remember, I am surprised, I was targeted’.
“Can the honourable member (Tšolo) assure this committee that when all these events were unfolding, he was in the right state of mind. Was his mind functioning well particularly in the instances where he says, ‘I never thought, I don’t remember, I don’t know, I am surprised’. Should we believe that he was in the right state of mind as a government representative and working in the office of the Prime Minister,” Mr Kaya asked.
This angered Mr Tšolo who shot back by asking, “what does the state of mind mean? Are you saying I was drunk? Are you saying that?”
Mr Kaya maintained his composure while repeating his question until Mr Tšolo interrupted him.
Thereafter, a slanging match ensured as both legislators spoke at the same time in an attempt to drown each other out.
This continued for a few minutes until acting PAC chairperson, Kimetso Mathaba, called Mr Tšolo to order.
Mr Kaya then repeated his questions, adding, “if he (Tšolo) feels I’m being invasive, I will withdraw that”.
This again irritated Mr Tšolo who replied, “the discretion is yours to decide whether I was drunk or not because that is what you are insinuating”.
Mr Kaya eventually let go of the issue after being told to do so by Mr Mathaba who said he did not want the session to dwell on issues that unnecessarily inflamed people instead of focusing on the objective of getting to the bottom of what had actually transpired in the botched solar deal.
The PAC session went ahead despite last ditch efforts to stop it by Dr Majoro.
The premier had wanted the hearings suspended to allow the government to present its case in the Gauteng High Court. The government has petitioned the Gauteng High Court to stop the seizure of its water royalties and other assets in South Africa to pay off part of the £50 million damages it allegedly owes Frazer Solar for breaching the contract.
However, the PAC members rejected the premier’s plea and insisted on conducting the hearings. Ms Ntobaki, who is a witness in the Gauteng court case, testified before the PAC in camera on Tuesday.