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.