Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

On Wednesday. a former Hawks member now employed by a pre-eminent private investigations firm, will challenge an application to make final interim protection orders prohibiting him from conducting further surveillance on journalists.

Nico Smith‚ the head of investigations and intelligence at Combined Private Investigations (CPI)‚ has been accused of spying on journalists and politicians on behalf of Gupta-linked persons‚ with assistance from an employee at a leading cellphone service provider.

Last week, The Sunday Times revealed that Smith allegedly gained unlawful access to the cellphone records of Tiso Blackstar editor-at-large Peter Bruce‚ Financial Mail editor Rob Rose and former finance minister Trevor Manuel — all outspoken critics of the Gupta family’s ransacking of state coffers.

Parts of these records were published on Gupta-linked fake news site ‘wmcleaks.com’ on August 13‚ including records of Bank of Baroda CEO Manoj Kumar Jha‚ in an article that sought to link Manuel‚ Bruce and Rose with influencing Kumar to close the Gupta family bank accounts with Baroda.

WMCLeaks is run by a former Gupta employee, Saurabh Agarwal, who is now living in India.

The article also cited a so-called “middleman” through whom Manuel and Bruce allegedly communicated‚ and attached to this fictitious person a number MTN has confirmed is used for marketing purposes.

Last week Smith was served with two interim protection orders‚ granted by the Randburg Magistrate’s Court‚ ordering him not to conduct any unlawful surveillance on Bruce and Rose‚ which includes physical and electronic surveillance.

The order also asks that WMCLeaks be prohibited from publishing any further defamatory content relating to Bruce.

In July‚ the website made public a “leaked report”, ostensibly compiled by a private investigator‚ showing photographs of Bruce with a woman he said in a subsequent opinion piece was making custom dog collars for his pets.

The report also published ID numbers‚ addresses and cell phone numbers of Bruce and others and‚ while seemingly inaccurate‚ did reveal that Bruce had been followed for at least a week in September 2016.

He received indications of what was to come weeks before through tweets by known Gupta-bots created by disgraced UK PR firm Bell Pottinger to promote pro-Gupta agendas.

Smith and CPI have denied ever having conducted surveillance on Bruce or accessing the phone records of any journalist or politician and he plans to oppose the orders being made permanent in court on November 8.

According to court papers attached to the application citing an affidavit by chief forensic investigator at MTN Petrus Steyn‚ the cell phone records eventually published on WMCLeaks were given to Smith by an MTN employee‚ senior fraud analyst Primrose Nhlapho‚ who when confronted admitted verbally and in writing to Steyn that she was paid R3‚750 by CPI in return for the records.

Smith and CPI denied this on Friday‚ with Smith claiming the funds were approved and paid by CPI to Nhlapho for her son who‚ he said‚ assisted him with information.

CPI’s biggest clients are Eskom and Transnet‚ for which they have provided services since and conducted copper theft investigations since 2009 and 2015, respectively.

Both companies confirmed CPI was a service provider but would not be drawn into details of the contracts.

“The nature of my job, which entails at this stage commentating on the extent of state capture involving, inter alia, Transnet and Eskom‚ it appears from the profile of CPI that two of their major clients are in fact Transnet and Eskom‚” Bruce stated in support of the urgency of the application for a protection order.

“Now that it has been established that it was, in fact, CPI who paid for my cellphone records to be unlawfully accessed‚ I am fearful that the more I responsibly publish the facts and commentary surrounding state capture‚ the greater the risk of me being exposed to dirty tricks by those who I may identify in my future articles‚” he added.

“I had never heard of these people in my life until these interdicts were served‚” Smith said.

“I had to Google them. Everything in those papers are a complete and utter lie.”

He further vowed to get to the bottom of the matter‚ saying it was an attempt to slander his name.

Manuel did not form part of the application for protection orders and did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith, meanwhile, admitted that he had known Nhlapho for several years. During his work for the police‚ he had dealt with her in serving MTN section 205 subpoenas for records as part of criminal investigations‚ he explained.

But the allegations in the protection orders were “complete lies and fabrications”‚ Smith said.

His CV‚ available on his LinkedIn page‚ states that he “brings to the table” specialised skills and a “cellphone informant working with me for the past 14 years (employed at the leading cellphone network in SA)”.

In the court papers it is disclosed that Nhlapho told MTN investigators that this time‚ Smith had not produced a section 205 and she had assisted him with the records of Bruce and Rose in return for payment.

“Providing call data records of a third party to anyone outside of MTN, as Ms Nhlapho has done‚ is a serious and major violation of MTN’s internal policies and procedures‚” MTN spokesperson Karen Byamugisha said at the time.

“[Her] conduct was not authorised by MTN and she acted outside her authority‚ course and scope of her employment.”

Byamugisha added that after the transgression was discovered‚ Nhlapho was suspended and subsequently resigned. She failed to arrive at a disciplinary hearing thereafter.

“It was necessary for her to have access to customer call information as part of her job in our revenue assurance environment‚ so it would not be unusual for her to access records for legitimate purposes.”

MTN said that although Nhlapho said she had previously disclosed information to Smith‚ it had not detected any specific incidents where she unlawfully provided records to a third party.

“MTN has strict policies regarding the confidentiality of customer information. Ms Nhlapho abused her privileges. We have laid criminal charges against her an in so doing have alerted the police to the role of the third party for further investigation‚” she said.

A case that cites a contravention of the Rica act and corruption in terms of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Practices Act, has been registered at Fairlands police station.

Nhlapho, when contacted for comment, said: “No‚ no‚ I can’t talk about that.”

CPI, meanwhile, dismissed what it called “misplaced” questions over possible links to the Gupta family‚ saying neither it nor Smith had ever met Agarwal or been contracted by him, and further denied any wrongdoing.

“Mr Smith has assured us that he has never even heard of Mr Rose and Mr Bruce‚ never obtained their itemised billing and has never heard of wmcleaks.com. We have no reason or evidence to doubt him‚” CPI director Roy Robertson said in a written response.

“The flight of fancy taking you to asking us about state capture is mind boggling in its imaginativeness and perfectly misplaced‚” Robertson added. “CPI has no links to Gupta-linked companies whatsoever.”

 

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