Markus Jooste. Picture: RAYMOND PRESTON/SUNDAY TIMES
Markus Jooste. Picture: RAYMOND PRESTON/SUNDAY TIMES

Parliament has sought a legal opinion from senior counsel about what questions can legitimately be asked of former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste should he be subpoenaed to appear before the finance committee.

The committee is due to hold a further briefing on the Steinhoff saga this month, and for the first time will be able to engage directly with one of the senior executives at the helm of the global furniture retailer in the years ahead of its dramatic collapse in December last year. According to parliamentary sources, former CFO Ben le Grange has agreed to appear before the committee.

Steinhoff has previously stated that Le Grange had no involvement in the accounting irregularities allegedly orchestrated by Jooste, even though he had oversight of the accounts. La Grange was part of the management team that took over the group after its collapse, but he stepped down as CFO in January so that he could focus on shoring up the liquidity of the group and finalising its 2017 financial statements.

Former Steinhoff CFO Ben le Grange. Picture: SUPPLIED
Former Steinhoff CFO Ben le Grange. Picture: SUPPLIED

DA finance spokesman David Maynier is keen to interrogate La Grange. "We are being sold a story that Markus Jooste was a kind of corporate ‘Prime Evil’ responsible for committing a massive corporate fraud all on his own after bamboozling everybody, especially the members of the boards of Steinhoff International Holdings," Maynier said. "Well, I just don’t buy the story and want to know what Ben le Grange knew, when he knew it and what he did about it, because in the end he was the finance tsar of Steinhoff International Holdings."

The finance committee has committed itself to quarterly meetings on Steinhoff to learn what progress has been made in the forensic investigation initiated by the company, as well as investigations by the Hawks and other regulators such as the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority and the JSE.

The committee’s interest in the matter was prompted not only by the fact that many investors and pension funds suffered serious financial losses due to the Steinhoff collapse but also by the tardiness of the regulators in taking action against those involved.

The committee has previously invited Jooste to appear voluntarily, but he has refused on the grounds that he is no longer an employee of Steinhoff and cannot speak on its behalf. Through his attorney, Callie Albertyn, he has also told the committee that he would not be able to answer questions as this might prejudice him in any future prosecution or inquiry.

This prompted the committee to ask the office of the speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, to issue a subpoena against him. Parliamentary spokesman Moloto Mothapo confirmed that legal advice of senior counsel had been sought. Parliament wanted to be on secure legal ground if it decided to issue a subpoena, because Jooste through his attorney had indicated he would approach the court to contest a summons.

"It is a matter which has a strong potential for court action so we need to make sure we are well advised before we take that decision," Mothapo said.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za