A top banker, who was controversially fired by Lesotho PostBank, has landed a new plump post as the new Principal Secretary (PS) for Mining, an appointment that has been strongly condemned as a clear indicator that the Thomas Thabane coalition no longer takes the fight against corruption and impropriety seriously.
Critics of the appointment say it should be common practice for anyone earmarked for a top government post, particularly the uppermost job of PS, to be vetted for cleanliness and integrity before appointment. For the government to appoint a tainted individual to such a top post, so soon after he had been dismissed by a major bank, means it has thrown away any caution to the wind and does not care about the need for integrity for its top office bearers, the critics say.
Themba Sopeng was until recently a former chief credit officer at Post Bank. He was hauled before the bank's disciplinary committee in July 2019 over accusations that he had potentially prejudiced the bank of nearly M7 million after he irregularly transferred that amount from the account of one company into another's without any basis for the transaction. Mr Sopeng was accused of making the transfer unilaterally without following the bank's procedures and involving others who should have authenticated the transaction.
He was then fired by PostBank after he was found guilty at the internal disciplinary process.
PostBank managing director Molefi Leqhaoe this week confirmed that Mr Sopeng had been found guilty of the charges raised against him and dismissed from the bank. He however declined to give any further details, saying the matter had not yet been fully finalized and hinting that more discomfort may still come Mr Sopeng's way.
"We would like to hold on to the rest of the information that you are asking about because upon exhausting all internal avenues as per the regulations of the bank, criminal charges are yet to follow. So, we wouldn't want to jeopardise those processes," Mr Leqhaoe said.
"It should however be noted that during the hearing, we called in an independent body (to conduct the hearing) because we wanted the process to be as transparent as possible. It would have been improper to chair the hearing while the bank was also the complainant in the matter. Mr Sopeng needed a fair hearing.
"Mr Sopeng was found guilty of all charges brought against him but these are issues that I cannot discuss with the press as the bank is still working on some finer details of the matter. I do however, confirm that he was fired and is no longer an employee of the PostBank," Mr Leqhaoe said.
Despite that dismissal Prime Minister Thomas Thabane nonetheless seems to have had no qualms elevating Mr Sopeng to an even cushier post of PS.
A former government secretary, who asked for anonymity, said it was highly inappropriate for the PM to have appointed a person with such a soiled record to the top administrative post of an entire ministry.
The fact that the latest appointment took effect only three weeks back, a short-while after Mr Sopeng had been dismissed, made the situation even worse. The former GS said it was standard procedure for the government to do background checks on all its top employees.
"At the rate at which they (the Thabane coalition) are going they could even take a convicted fraudster straight from Maseru Maximum and appoint him to the post of PS for Finance... .," quipped a serving government official, who also asked not to be named.
The fact that after being fired, Mr Sopeng still faces the specter of criminal charges in the courts made the situation gravier, she said.
Current Government Secretary (GS), Moahloli Mphaka said he was not aware of the circumstances under which Mr Sopeng had left PostBank.
"I'm not aware of his case at PostBank... hence he was appointed. I am therefore not in a position to speak on the issues that you are referring to," Mr Mphaka said.
Asked if it was acceptable under normal circumstances for a person who had been found guilty of gross misconduct by a major financial institution to then be appointed to a top job requiring him to manage public funds, Mr Mphaka then refused to comment further saying it would be unfair on Mr Sopeng of he did so.
"I don't want to comment because it would be unfair. It will appear as if I am attacking him," Mr Mphaka said.
However, the other former GS described the appointment as a "disaster".
"It is a 'misappointment' because this is a person who is essentially accused of dishonest and gets fired from a senior banking job only to be immediately elevated to an even more senior post in which he will be the chief accounting officer of a ministry tasked with an entire ministerial purse and properties," the former GS said.
"There is no better example of irresponsibility on the part of a government... This is an irregular and corrupt choice. How do they simply appoint people without any vetting or due diligence... They are telling Basotho that they clearly don't care about the integrity of those who hold public office... It's like appointing Marcus Jooste to take charge of South Africa's national treasury."
Jooste is the fallen CEO of the retail giant Steinhoff accused of false accounting which wiped off hundreds of billions of shareholder value at that company.
On his part, Mr Sopeng confirmed that he was now the new PS for Mining but declined to speak on his debacle at PostBank.
"I was appointed three weeks ago and would rather not get into details of how I left PostBank because I still have pending issues with them. I still have a pending case against the bank at the Directorate of Dispute Prevention and Resolution (DDPR)," Mr Sopeng said
Mr Sopeng was appointed three weeks back to replace Ntahli Matete, who resigned in July 2019.
Mr Sopeng had been charged with gross misconduct, negligence, abuse of power and lack of good faith after he transferred M6 999 000 from an account held by Meriti Holdings (Pty) Ltd into another one belonging to Teboho Construction at a different bank without any basis for the transaction, sources in the know said. Teboho Construction was controlled by Yan Xie, the controversial Chinese, also known as John, who is an advisor to Prime Minister Thabane and has been linked to a number of murky deals.
According to the sources, the scam happened two days after the Meriti Holdings account holders had submitted a new shareholding structure of their company and a new set of account signatories to Postbank.
At the time the illegal transfer was done, one Teboho Mothebesoane controlled 490 shares of Meriti Holdings while a Xao Fung owned 510 shares. However, as of 15 January 2019 Mr Mothebesoane became the sole shareholder of the company controlling all 1000 shares.
Soon after Meriti Holdings approached the bank on 23 January to change their account signatories, the illegal transfer was done to Teboho Construction.
Mr Sopeng was then suspended pending investigations into the matter and the Directorate of Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) also came on board for further investigations.
The illegal transfer meant PostBank would have had to bear the loss and compensate Meriti Holdings if the withdrawal from the latter's account had been done without its authorization. It is not clear what exactly happened after the transaction as PostBank refused to shed any light about whether or not the money had been recovered from Teboho Construction or whether it had had to compensate Meriti Holdings.