espite national airline SAA being in severe financial trouble, chairperson Dudu Myeni’s former spokesperson and adviser was brought on board at an average cost to the airline of R167 000 a month. Nick Linnell, a former lawyer from Zimbabwe turned business consultant, was hired by SAA last year as an adviser to its board.
Linnell previously worked for Myeni as her spokesperson and adviser at the Mhlathuze Water Board, where Myeni has a long and tumultuous stint as chairperson.
In March, he was tapped by Eskom’s then chairperson, Zola Tsotsi, to lead an external inquiry into the financial chaos at the parastatal. But after Tsotsi’s departure, Eskom’s board replaced Linnell because his proposed appointment had not gone through an open tender process.
It appears Linnell was initially hired by SAA to lead the investigation against former CEO Monwabisi Kalawe, but invoices seen by City Press suggest he has become SAA’s Mr Fix-It, reviewing forensic reports, writing media statements, drafting letters to ministers and even lobbying police for a “high-level investigation” into forensic consultant Paul O’Sullivan.
Various invoices and billing memorandums indicate that between December and April, Linnell’s Cape Townbased company, The Project Office, billed SAA for 517 hours of work at an average cost of R1 596 an hour.
He also claimed back R4 784.34 for hotel accommodation, R3 683 for airport parking and R5 382.20 for phone calls and printing. His total bill came to R835 276.54.
But Linnell’s exact role at SAA remains unclear. Linnell told City Press that due to client confidentiality, he was “not at liberty to share details of specific work done”.
Numerous entries show he has billed SAA for drafting press releases and replying to media queries. This is despite the fact that SAA already employs spokesperson Tlali Tlali on a salary of more than R100 000 a month.
Although Linnell is not registered as a lawyer or an auditor, he also appears to have spent many hours reviewing forensic reports, legal opinions and affidavits, building case files and liaising with law firm ENSafrica.
In response, Linnell said: “I am not a practising attorney and don’t suggest so. Any professional services that we require, be they accounting or legal, are provided by one or more of the large professional firms that we use routinely.”
However, SAA already pays for the services of two of ENSafrica’s most experienced lawyers, Steven Powell (director of forensics) and George van Niekerk (director of dispute resolution).
City Press sent SAA a list of detailed questions about Linnell’s role last week, but the airline failed to comment.
However, an insider with insight into the SAA board insisted that, despite the cost, Linnell’s appointment was good value for SAA because he was often the only person able to get through to Myeni and was helping to repair damaged relationships as well as give the chaotic board some direction.
The documents suggest that under the umbrella of the Kalawe investigation, SAA started paying Linnell to investigate O’Sullivan.
In an email to several state agencies, O’Sullivan falsely accused Myeni of stashing millions of euros – supposedly the proceeds of corrupt deals – in foreign bank accounts. When O’Sullivan realised the bank statements were forgeries, he withdrew the allegations and apologised.
Despite SAA lawyers reaching an agreement with O’Sullivan, Myeni opened a criminal case against him for forgery and uttering. Invoices show that, since March, SAA has been paying for both Linnell and ENSafrica’s work on Myeni’s case against O’Sullivan.
Invoices show that Linnell billed SAA for various services, including “meeting with ENS team [regarding O’Sullivan] information and strategy”, “discussions to secure high-level Hawks inquiry into [O’Sullivan] matter”, “contact with Hawks officers [regarding O’Sullivan] matter”, and “reviewing judgments on [O’Sullivan] and background checks”.
Approached for comment, O’Sullivan said: “If she wants to get lawyers and go after me, she should be paying for it out of her own pocket.”
Earlier this year, SAA announced that, despite numerous bailouts and guarantees, the airline’s precarious financial position meant that it would need to cut up to 10% of its staff.
On Thursday, several trade unions went to the labour court to try to prevent SAA from retrenching any employees until they disclosed detailed information about the airline’s finances.
Zenzo Mahlangu, general secretary of the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu), said: “All we see among them is spying against this one, spying against that one, this one taping that one – which is not actually improving the situation at SAA.”
Instead of cutting the jobs of low-paid workers, some of whom earn about R5 000 a month, Satawu believes the focus of cost cuts should be in senior management.
“Hiring a consultant in our view is an acknowledgment of deficiencies in terms of capabilities within,” Mahlangu said.
“In our view, SAA’s problems lie within senior management and middle management. We think they have been sleeping for too long – they’ve got to a point where they think sleeping is acceptable.”