Lawyer Michael Randell's downfall recalled

From a respected voice for underprivileged pupils to a convicted fraudster, the crash and fall of Michael Randell’s legal career was highlighted yesterday as a court deliberated on a suitable sentence. Randell, 63, who was convicted of defrauding a Port Elizabeth school out of more than R2.5-million, will hear his fate today. Hours of emotive testimony, including a letter from Randell himself, was heard in the Port Elizabeth Commercial Crimes Court as the state and defence fought for and against a prison term. “I initially felt anger and frustration because I believed in my innocence and felt betrayed, and a victim of opportunism,” Randell wrote to clinical psychologist Sarel Steyn. “Since the conviction, I have been giving due thought to coming to terms with it and working on gaining better insight . . . I have great remorse surrounding the circumstances of the offence,” he wrote. Randell had said he felt sad for himself that the good he had set out to achieve turned out so badly. Randell, of Thornhill, was convicted in April of defrauding Greenwood Primary School of more than R2.5-million while serving on the school’s governing body with chairman Michel Lascot and then principal Patrick Shelver, between 1999 and 2006. Shelver pleaded guilty and in exchange for his testimony against Randell, received a suspended sentence. Lascot has died. Also an attorney with a special interest in human rights, Randell pioneered several successful court cases on behalf of underprivileged schools against the Eastern Cape Department of Education. In August last year, almost a year prior to his conviction, he was struck from the Cape Law Society’s roll of attorneys. Unimpressed by what he described as a lack of remorse, state advocate Wilhelm de Villiers said it was ironic the accused was now being described as a victim. “A child who kills his parents can hardly call himself an orphan at the court’s mercy,” De Villiers said.

He said Randell continued to remain vague about why he had committed the offence. Steyn, who consulted with Randell and drew up a report in mitigation of sentence, said it was his belief correctional supervision was the only suitable sanction. Steyn said if kept out of prison, Randell would still be able to do much good in the community. Steyn said he had also interviewed Federation of Governing Bodies for South African Schools (Fedsas) chief executive Paul Colditz. Colditz had said he had been privileged to have seen and experience the relief Randell brought to the lives of thousands of children and school staff. Steyn said: “Paying back some of the money and working for the community is a better option than sending a 63-year-old to prison.” De Villiers retorted that Randell had been just 46 when he had drawn up the fraudulent trust deed and then had the six years that followed to contemplate the wrongfulness of his actions – but his actions over the crime spoke to everything but remorse. Steyn said Randell’s family continued to support and respect him. His daughter, Julie Robertson, recalled a memory as a child while on holiday in Coffee Bay. She said her dad literally took off his shirt to give to someone less fortunate. Defence advocate Alfonso Hattingh, on instruction from lawyer Dean Murray, argued that Randell’s sentence needed to be proportionate to that of Shelver. Hattingh said Randell had already received his first punishment by losing his job on the brink of retirement. De Villiers will address the court today in aggravation of sentence.