Suspended Bay official quits after secret deal

Harper given golden handshake as metro seeks new chief financial officer

More than a year after his suspension, Trevor Harper has quit the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality following a secret deal that will see the former top official walk away with a golden handshake.

The former chief financial officer had been on suspension since November 2016.

He was accused of negligently signing off on payments worth R34.6-million to Afrisec, a company that did work for the metro’s bus system without a lawful contract in place.

Yesterday, city manager Johann Mettler confirmed that Harper had resigned last week following a negotiated settlement with the municipality.

However, Mettler refused to say how much Harper would be paid out, saying the amount was confidential.

Harper was appointed in February 2014, earning about R1.9-million a year.

His five-year contract was due to end next year.

In a statement yesterday, the UDM said based on its calculations, Harper would be paid out at least R5-million.

UDM councillor Mongameli Bobani claimed the amount included Harper’s salary, interest and legal fees. But Mettler dismissed this. “I categorically deny this amount as there is no way I would pay this,” Mettler said.

“Trevor approached us with a resignation offer, which we accepted.”

Yesterday, Harper said he was not allowed to speak about his resignation, in terms of his agreement with the municipality.

“In terms of the agreement with the municipality, I’m not allowed to disclose anything, whether confirming or denying,” Harper said.

“It’s very clear in my agreement with the municipality. I can’t answer anything.” In June last year, Harper was cleared of allegations of wrongdoing in a separate matter involving R7.8-million that was paid to businessman Fareed Fakir’s company, Erastyle, for the development of a marketing strategy for the IPTS bus system.

Asked whether Harper’s settlement did not need to be approved by the council, Mettler said he had the delegated authority to settle disputes.

“Council only has to appoint, by law. Resignations of section 56 managers are handled by the city manager,” Mettler said.

While on the campaign trail in 2016, mayor Athol Trollip was a vocal critic of how disciplinary processes against accused municipal officials often dragged on for months on end.

He was frequently scathing of the municipality paying golden handshakes to officials who had been accused of maladministration, saying this would not happen under his watch.

Asked yesterday if Harper’s settlement did not undermine this promise, Trollip said the case with Harper had dragged on due to many unexpected delays and interlocutory applications.

“I remain of the opinion that they [golden handshakes] should not be the order of the day as they were in the past,” Trollip said.

“We as an administration could simply not continue without a full-time CFO, especially after the latest auditor-general’s qualified audit that was in relation to the budget drawn up by Mr Harper and the previous administration.

“We could no longer afford more delays in what had become an interminable process,” he said in a text message.

The municipality received a qualified audit opinion for the 2016-17 financial year – the sixth one in a row from the auditorgeneral.

The AG’s findings were based mainly on the city’s slack management of its property, plant and equipment (PPE), while it also had R11.5-billion in irregular expenditure dating back to 2002.

Budget and treasury head Retief Odendaal said Harper’s resignation was with immediate effect, which was why the CFO position had been advertised on Friday.

“Given the fact that we need to be able to make progress on our audit findings, it is of critical importance that we get this matter sorted out or, in the alternative, appoint a CFO as quickly as possible,” Odendaal said.

“The AG has highlighted that there’s no stability as far as budget and treasury is concerned seeing the CFO was suspended for such a long time.” TODAY we report that the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality has reached a settlement deal cutting ties with its erstwhile chief financial officer.

Trevor Harper resigned last week and will be paid out an undisclosed amount as part of the secret settlement agreement.

His contract was due to end next year.

Harper had been at home for 15 months, following his suspension in November 2016.

He was accused of making substantial payments to a company doing work for the city’s bus contract without a proper contract in place.

In its statement yesterday, the municipality said it had begun a search for a new chief financial officer.

Of major concern, however, are the many unanswered questions regarding Harper’s case and his subsequent settlement.

The most obvious is why the metro opted to settle and pay out a person accused of maladministration when it had, until now, suggested it was confident of its case against him.

While campaigning to lead the city in 2016, mayor Athol Trollip rightfully promised that under his administration, the metro would cease to dish out golden handshakes to officials accused of wrongdoing.

Those who were accused had to go through a disciplinary process which would prove their guilt or innocence, Trollip previously said.

Harper’s settlement and the secrecy about it not only makes a mockery of Trollip’s election promise – similarly to the previous administration, this golden handshake undermines the principle of good governance.

While confidential settlements are a normal part of our labour system, there remains a higher degree of expectation for prudence and transparency where public money is concerned.

Harper’s settlement can only mean that the city either had no credible case against him to begin with or that it had bungled the process so much that it compromised its ability to prosecute Harper fairly.

Either way, this means that a year and millions of rands later, ratepayers remain in the dark about Harper’s role and possible culpability in one of the metro’s biggest corruption scandals.