EXCLUSIVE: How Trillian hid Eskom’s missing millions
A new leak of 3-million documents from the Trillian server shows how the investment company may have hidden Eskom’s missing millions
A computer server from investment company Trillian, holding more than 3-million documents, has laid bare where part of the vanished Gupta millions ended up.
It’s a breakthrough because, while it’s common knowledge that millions of dollars were allegedly stolen from state-owned entities (SOEs) by the Guptas and their associates, it has remained unclear what happened to this money.
For example, while a high court in June ordered Trillian to give back R595m that Eskom unlawfully paid it, the Asset Forfeiture Unit had already said it "did not succeed in locating" that money. Trillian co-founder Eric Wood has blamed shareholder loans to Gupta associate Salim Essa for draining the funds.
But the trail of money has now been revealed, thanks to memos, invoices and e-mails saved on the Trillian server, obtained exclusively by the Organised Crime & Corruption Reporting Project and reported here for the first time.
The documents show that taxpayer money paid to Trillian was cycled through a network of 10 shell companies and consulting firms that held accounts with local and international banks, ending up as far afield as India and Dubai.
The leaks provide another breakthrough: until now, it has been difficult to directly link the Guptas to Trillian, which siphoned hundreds of millions from SOEs such as Eskom and Transnet. But e-mails show one "RP Gupta" — perhaps the youngest brother, Rajesh — communicating personally about the deals.
The documents show how Trillian oversaw the network of consultancies and shell firms that helped the Guptas handle their gains. They suggest that:
• Of the R595m that Trillian got from Eskom, more than R300m was paid into the accounts of nine firms overseen by Trillian and controlled by the Guptas. Millions were then recycled back to Trillian presumably to disguise the money’s origin. A further R205m was paid to Trillian’s Bank of Baroda account and another group company, Trillian Shared Services. Funds were then shuffled directly to Zestilor, a company linked to Essa, under a R200m service agreement. The rest was paid directly to Gupta lieutenants.
• Trillian also received just over R500m in "loans" from three firms controlled by Gupta associates: Centaur, Cutting Edge and Albatime. In all three cases, the loans may not have been intended to be repaid. This was money from Eskom, Transnet and other SOEs.
Trillian CFO Tebogo Leballo didn’t respond to questions. Rajesh "Tony" Gupta and Atul Gupta could not be reached for comment.
• These new leaks provide a vital piece of the puzzle about the state money that disappeared during the years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, from 2009 to 2017.
As the company that handled the money flowing into the Gupta network, Trillian — an unassuming investment firm once headquartered in Joburg’s upmarket Melrose Arch — was central to this.
The company was spun out of Regiments Capital in 2015, as the brainchild of Wood, a stock trader and former director of Regiments, and Essa, the man who would link the Gupta family to key political players.
However, the new documents show how Wood and Essa linked up three years earlier.
In a September 2012 e-mail to Essa with the subject line "project scoping", Wood outlines how, working together, the two men could win business deals worth R775m over just two months, September to November 2012, from state companies including Denel and Transnet. (Eskom isn’t listed in that mail.)
The message reveals that Wood and Essa, who was acting on behalf of the Guptas, were already discussing the public entities they would later allegedly exploit.
A few months later, in 2013, Essa’s company Elgasolve formally became Regiments’ "business development partner". Months later, Essa offered to buy 50% of Regiments, but the directors refused. Unlike his colleagues, however, Wood was seemingly eager to deepen his ties to the Gupta family.
So in the spring of 2015, Wood and Essa co-founded Trillian. According to an affidavit, the plan was to run Trillian only until 2019 — the year Zuma would have stepped down had he served his full term. But Zuma’s early exit from office, as well as the scrutiny over the Guptas, probably torpedoed their plans.
(Wood did not respond to phone calls or questions sent by e-mail. Essa could not be reached.)
Wood, who worked for a stint at Investec early on, was once billed as the "greatest trading star in SA".
In a doctoral thesis submitted to Wits University in 2015, he made the case for an aggressive style of moneymaking. He argued that the key to success as a trader is to make high-risk investments and not to count on a long career. In other words: haul in the cash.
If that was the mission, then invoices on the Trillian server show just how successful it was.
In 2015, global consultancy McKinsey was awarded a contract to provide services to Eskom, but Trillian soon popped up with aspirations of being McKinsey’s "supply development and localisation partner".
(Though McKinsey flagged Trillian as a risk, in part due to Essa’s presence, it had little choice but to accept the situation. Back then, Eskom CFO Anoj Singh was already close to the Guptas, who had allegedly paid for him to travel to Dubai.)
Inexplicably, Eskom immediately began shunting money to Trillian.
Suspiciously, the first payment was made precisely one day after Eskom approved Trillian as a registered supplier, raising the question of how any work done could have been assessed within 24 hours.
After arriving in Trillian’s accounts, the Eskom money was quickly spirited off to various consultancies and shell companies. For example, on August 13 2016, Trillian got R235m from Eskom. Within five days, R221m of that had been dispersed. (On August 12, Trillian had just R8,900 in that account.)
Two companies that got R204m of this money were Gupta-linked consultancies Cutting Edge and eGateway, which invoiced Trillian for work they allegedly did. The invoices contain descriptions such as "data analysis", "cost-saving initiatives" and "technical services", but there were no contracts attached.
McKinsey was becoming increasingly alarmed, and in March 2016, it scrapped the partnership. No matter: Trillian had begun talks with US consultancy Oliver Wyman.
In an e-mail headed "Meeting 2/1 Dubai — next steps", Essa wrote to Maarten de Wit, a partner at Oliver Wyman, saying Wood would arrange "for you guys to sit with Mo Bhobhat, the chief adviser for Cogta [co-operative governance & traditional affairs] minister".
This seems to be a reference to Mohamed Bobat, a former Trillian employee who had become an adviser to minister David "Des" van Rooyen — famously parachuted into the Treasury as finance minister for a weekend in December 2015. It seems Oliver Wyman was possibly being lined up to replace McKinsey.
The e-mails also show a direct link between eGateway, which got part of the Eskom cash, and the Guptas. The company’s e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, was overseen by someone who signed e-mails as "RP Gupta" — possibly Rajesh Gupta.
In one e-mail from July 2016, RP Gupta thanks a Trillian employee for work that was "highly appreciated by Escom [sic] and Trillian".
In response, Trillian’s employee is obsequious, referring to RP Gupta as "Respected Sir" and emphasising that he will do whatever is needed.
Besides the R204m paid to eGateway and Cutting Edge, the Trillian data shows that R100m went to what appear to be various shell companies in SA. Three of these — Medjoul, Fortime and Birsaa — listed the same registration address, shared a director, and collectively deregistered in August 2017. They also invoiced Transnet, Denel and SA Express.
Four other shell companies — Jacsha, Shacob, Matson and Pactrade — shared directors, and some shared addresses. Multiple invoices citing Eskom were filed by these companies (excluding Pactrade) in August 2016.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly how much these shells made from Eskom, as the cash bounced between various entities, but it’s clear it was many millions.
At the same time, Trillian also paid R205m to Trillian Capital Partners and Trillian Shared Services. Other large payments were made to Albatime, Essa and Wood (through his company Numibrite).
These accounts transferred still more money to the Gupta-linked shell companies. For example, on August 18 2016, Trillian Shared Services transferred close to R15m to Fortime, Medjoul and Birsaa, and R45m to Essa-linked Zestilor.
Just the previous day, Trillian had agreed to pay Zestilor R200m for its services, according to a document signed by Leballo.
Moreover, as soon as Eskom sent the funds to Trillian’s Bank of Baroda account, Trillian asked the bank to send R75m back. These funds may also have been intended for Zestilor.
On August 18, Leballo instructed Trillian to make a payment of R75m to Zestilor, adding that he "would provide details later".
Then, on August 31, Ashok Narayan — an employee of the Guptas’ first company in SA, Sahara Systems — sent more than a dozen invoices to Leballo. These showed that funds were paid to shell companies, including Fortime and Birsaa, "to cover the R75m to Zestilor".
The following year, Trillian carried out an internal review of Zestilor that showed Sahara was Zestilor’s only client.
E-mails from 2015 show that Sahara employees had detailed information about Zestilor’s First National Bank account. Sahara’s Santosh Choubey, for example, sent an e-mail to Essa, copied to Rajesh Gupta, that showed knowledge of Zestilor’s financial and ownership structures.
E-mails from the Trillian server also show that the shell companies were overseen by a single e-mail address: email@example.com.
According to the records, the handler of this account, often simply referred to as "A", was Narayan. (Narayan could not be reached for comment.)
Even before Trillian was created, some Regiments employees appeared to know that Narayan handled shell companies for the Guptas, taking an even split of profits from government contracts. One e-mail, sent in late 2015 by a Regiments employee to Narayan, reads: "Hi Ashok, See attached the schedule for the allocation of the payment that was done on Friday to both Fortime and Birsaa."
The e-mails show that through Narayan, the Guptas kept a close watch over Regiments. In one, Wood shares with Narayan his correspondence with Eskom’s Singh, in which he lobbies for Regiments to receive "market-related compensation". Narayan then reports this information to Essa.
While the National Prosecuting Authority’s probe into the Guptas seems to have run aground, with both the family and Essa cooling their heels in Dubai, these new revelations may galvanise Eskom to revive the hunt for its missing millions.