Recusal bid in Sizani fraud trial

Portia "Pankie" Sizani Picture: Eugene Coetzee / The Herald
Portia “Pankie” Sizani
Picture: Eugene Coetzee / The Herald

Defence cites magistrate’s links to Department of Education

In an unexpected twist yesterday, Portia “Pankie” Sizani’s legal team brought an application for the magistrate presiding over her fraud case to recuse himself as he could be perceived to be biased.

The Port Elizabeth Commercial Crimes Court heard that magistrate Mputumi Mpofu’s wife, a teacher in Queenstown, had applied for a transfer to Port Elizabeth.

The legal team for the wife of former ANC parliamentary chief whip Stone Sizani implied this could affect the magistrate’s judgment in the matter.

Led by Advocate Renee van Rooyen SC, under instruction from Advocate Johan Wessels, the defence did not accuse the magistrate outright of being biased, but made allegations that Mpofu’s relationship with the Department of Education, regardless of how remote, could lead to the perception that he was biased.

Citing judgments in other cases, Van Rooyen said the defence did not need to prove bias, they only needed to find some aspect within his actions that could leave the impression of bias.

The defence initially stated that Mpofu’s wife had requested a transfer from King William’s Town but the magistrate told them it was from Queenstown.

Sizani, 48, is accused of defrauding the Eastern Cape Department of Education out of R1.2-million by creating “ghost” teachers and pocketing their salaries.

She was working as the depar tment’s early childhood development coordinator at the time of the alleged offences, between January 2009 and November 2010.

In February, she was acquitted on five counts of money laundering, but still faces a further 10 counts as well as a charge of fraud.

Yesterday, a handful of friends and family members supporting Sizani sat in the public gallery.

One man fell asleep, but was quickly woken up by the woman sitting next to him when he started snoring.

Van Rooyen argued further that on more than one occasion throughout the case, relevant documentation had not been shared with the defence in time for it to prepare arguments.

The defence felt the magistrate was unwilling to consider certain submissions or applications brought before court, including an application for the case against Sizani to be dropped in July.

“It appears to the accused that you have not applied your mind sufficiently to all proceedings,” Van Rooyen said.

State advocate Ronelle Brink said the defence’s application had caught her by surprise and requested the matter be postponed as she needed time to prepare an argument.

The trial continues today.

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