Sunday Tribune

Ambassador recalled over ‘irregulari­ties’


SOUTH Africa’s ambassador to Italy, Shirish Soni, has been recalled and docked three months’ salary after he was found guilty of financial irregulari­ties and misreprese­nting his academic qualificat­ions.

Durban-born Soni, who worked as a senior SA Revenue Service (Sars) official when Public Enterprise­s Minister Pravin Gordhan was commission­er, was charged with four counts of misconduct related to sexual harassment, misreprese­ntation of academic qualificat­ions, financial irregulari­ties and “compromisi­ng the mission’s security”.

Soni’s 15-page suspension letter and charge sheet seen by Independen­t Media stated that he “provided in his personnel file that he obtained his matric in 1974”, which was “false because the department of basic education stated that ambassador Soni doesn’t appear among the names of candidates who wrote the matric or Standard 10 in November 1974”.

He was also charged with breaching security by appointing an Italian woman as an intern against the policies of the Department of Internatio­nal Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), and causing the embassy to pay for his medical treatment without approval. In addition, Soni faced a charge of sexual harassment. According to a letter written to Soni by acting Dirco Director General Clayson Monyela, the disgraced ambassador was found guilty by a disciplina­ry hearing which sat between October 21 and 24.

The hearing was chaired by an unnamed chairperso­n appointed by the director-general of the department.

Soni was found guilty on charge one, three and four and exonerated on count two. On charge one, the letter said: “You are found guilty on this charge for ignoring guidance that was provided to you by head office management and continued to hire or bring an Italian national as an intern or volunteer at the South African Embassy in Rome thus compromisi­ng Mission security.”

On count two, which related to financial irregulari­ties, Soni was also found guilty because as the accounting officer in the mission, “you knew that pre-approval was required beforehand but proceeded anyway to cause irregular expenditur­e by

making the embassy to effect payment for your medical treatment without prior approval of the delegated authority”.

A decision on count four, which related to misreprese­ntation of matric qualificat­ions, was “deferred” to allow him an opportunit­y to produce proof of the certificat­e.

“This is due to new informatio­n in which you stated in your clearance form Z204 the year 1975 as the year in which you obtained your matric qualificat­ions. You are thus given an opportunit­y to produce your 1975 matriculat­ion qualificat­ion records after which a decision will be made.”

For the charges in which he was found guilty, Soni was slapped with “a final written warning valid for six months” and “suspension without pay for a period of three months”.

“You must reimburse Dirco all funds owed by yourself as stated in the amended charge sheet. You are immediatel­y recalled from the mission in Rome, for corrective counsellin­g and retraining after you have completed your three months’ suspension without pay,” said part of the disciplina­ry outcome signed by Monyela on December 17. “You are instructed to provide Dirco with your matric qualificat­ion within 14 working days from the date of receipt of this letter.”

Soni was also ordered to make arrangemen­ts with the department’s financial management chief directorat­e regarding reimbursin­g the taxpayer.

The disgraced ambassador is said to have passed himself off as a “doctor and professor” even though he allegedly has no matric certificat­e.

Soni worked alongside former Sars deputy commission­er Ivan Pillay, who was appointed by Gordhan without a matric certificat­e. Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane is investigat­ing Gordhan after he allegedly strongarme­d the SAA board to appoint Nico Bezuidenho­ut, who has just a matric certificat­e, as the chief executive at Mango Airlines.

A former Sars employee, who used to work closely with Soni at the revenue service, yesterday said: “It was well-known at Sars that Soni doesn’t have matric and that he got the job because he has friends in high places.”

Another former Sars official added: “We were told that Soni didn’t have time to go to school as he grew up working at his father’s clothing factory hence he was given managerial positions as he used to manage a staff of about 500 people at some stage at the family business.”

Soni was first fired from Sars as assistant general manager customs in 2004 after he was implicated in the leasing scandal for the revenue services office in Durban known as the Albany building.

A few years later he was brought back as the head of enforcemen­t, risk and strategy, still under Gordhan’s tenure.

He eventually left Sars, again under a cloud, around 2010 and later got his first diplomatic posting as ambassador to Kazakhstan in 2012.

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