What on earth was a private lawyer doing on state team in Zuma case?
Public protector is probing the enlisting of Asif Essa's firm by the State Attorney's office
A lawyer whose firm is at the centre of a public protector probe into the alleged monopolisation of lucrative litigation outsourced by the state attorney’s office, was roped in to assist in the prosecution of former president Jacob Zuma.
Asif Essa, the former president of the KZN Law Society and director of Cajee Setsubi Chetty, appeared with a team of heavyweight prosecutors at Zuma’s last court appearance in November “in case anyone needed photocopies”.
While the National Prosecuting Authority said Essa had been “standing in” for the state attorney, three sources in the Pietermaritzburg legal fraternity described Essa’s presence as “bizarre”.
The move by the state to enlist the services of a private lawyer for a criminal trial was unheard of, said the lawyers, who did not want to be named.
“This is a criminal matter and does not require a correspondent attorney. It is a mystery how he came to be involved.”
Zuma faces graft charges relating to his role in the controversial arms deal and has applied for a permanent stay of prosecution.
Criminal law expert William Booth was vexed by the state paying for a private lawyer to assist with the case against Zuma, calling the move “highly unusual”.
“The NPA prosecutes and they can file their own paperwork. The state attorney would come in if the state was sued and probably only then,” he said.
But Essa said he had fulfilled a supporting role.
“I was asked to go and assist on the day. It was just in case they needed copies or anything. I haven’t even rendered a bill yet,” he said last month.
“There will be an account because we account for our time.”
NPA spokesperson Natasha Ramkisson-Kara said Essa was not part of the prosecution team but had been “standing in” for the state attorney.
“Mr Essa did not appear but was there as a correspondent attorney as the state attorney dealing with this matter was unavailable. He [Essa] was asked to be available in the unlikely event of some problem.”
Affairs of the state
At the heart of the public protector complaint is that the state attorney is accused of disproportionately allocating outsourced government litigation in Pietermaritzburg to a single firm.
State departments are the largest litigators in the country, with legal challenges landing them in halls of justice daily.
When these departments face legal action in a city where the state attorney doesn’t have an office, they appoint “correspondent attorneys” to carry out localised tasks.
Public Protector spokesperson Oupa Segalwe confirmed that they were investigating a complaint against the state attorney’s office.
“It is alleged the office outsourced work to only one firm of attorneys, Cajee Setsubi Chetty.”
Documents seen by Times Select reveal that public protector investigators wrote to the state attorney in KwaZulu-Natal and Cajee Setsubi Chetty last September.
They called on both parties to supply detailed breakdowns of how much the firm was paid.
Times Select has also seen a spreadsheet detailing cases – many of which were handled by Essa – that were assigned to the firm between 2010 and 2013.
In that period, the state attorney paid the firm more than R450,000 in more than 500 instances in which it was appointed as correspondents.
The statistics from reams of spreadsheets stop at 2013.
This is explained in a letter from the department of justice and constitutional development, which reveals that statistics relating to how much Cajee Setsubi Chetty was paid after 2013 until now “could not be found”.
But Essa insisted he was saving the state money.“I save millions of rands for the state and for that I am hugely unpopular. It also has a lot to do with professional jealousy.”He acknowledged he had received a detailed list of questions and allegations from the public protector.The state attorney, through department of justice spokesperson Steve Mahlangu, denied that his firm had been favoured in any way.While insisting that their allocation process was transparent, they refused to reveal how much Cajee Setsubi Chetty had been paid since 2013.