Wildlife manager fired for media leak
ASENIOR Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife manager has been fired for allegedly leaking information about a pension fund dispute to The Mercury – even though Ezemvelo appears to have produced no factual evidence to prove its claims.
Marine conservation manager George Nair, 56, was found guilty of “gross misconduct” last month by a disciplinary committee that recommended he be fired following Ezemvelo claims that he leaked “confidential information” about an Ezevelo pension fund dispute to Mercury environment journalist Tony Carnie last year.
Nair has been employed by Ezemvelo for 36 years and was also serving as the elected chairman of the trustees’ management committee for the Ezemvelo/Old Mutual umbrella pension fund when The Mercury published a news story on the dispute in November.
However, the Ezemvelo inquiry has now disregarded assurances given under oath by Carnie that the information was provided to the newspaper by third parties – not Nair.
The inquiry also appears to have further disregarded evidence that the information contained in The Mercury article had been circulated by e-mail to at least 16 Ezemvelo staff and possibly dozens of other parties after that before it came into the possession of The Mercury.
Instead, the inquiry found on “a balance of probabilities, it is probable that (Nair) is the one who divulged these communications to the media”.
The inquiry was chaired by Durban attorney Thembelani Ernest Nxumalo, with attorney T Ndwandwe representing Ezemvelo.
The only Ezemvelo witness to testify against Nair on the alleged leak was acting chief executive David Mabunda, who also instigated the disciplinary inquiry.
A copy of the inquiry’s written ruling states that Mabunda suspected that Nair disclosed the information, based on the fact that Nair was mentioned by name in the articles, which also contained details of e-mail correspondence between Nair and Mabunda.
What Mabunda, Nxumalo and Ndwandwe appear to have disregarded is that the articles were based on documents leaked to Carnie which contained verbatim e-mail correspondence between Mabunda and Nair.
These e-mails had been widely circulated among the pension fund management committee members and other staff.
This was confirmed by Ezemvelo employee Mlungisi Hlela, who also testified at the inquiry.
The Mercury articles arose after Nair, in his capacity as the elected chairman of Ezemvelo’s management committee for the Old Mutual Provident Superfund, raised queries with Mabunda on why rival pension fund provider Absa had been appointed to gather information and prepare a report on the Old Mutual fund.
Following a meeting of the Ezemvelo pension management committee last October, Nair was mandated by his fellow committee members to write to Mabunda to request information and clarity on developments affecting their retirement savings.
In his letter to Mabunda, Nair said the Ezemvelo trustee committee members were concerned that they had been “totally excluded” from the pension fund investigation process, that certain information requests resembled a “brokering bid” and that there were also concerns about how Absa came to be appointed.
Nair requested that Mabunda meet the management committee to discuss their concerns.
“It was also felt that the concerns raised have already leaked out to the staff in the field and the trustees would like to address the problem as soon as possible to quell any misunderstandings in this regard,” Nair said in his letter to Mabunda.
But Mabunda refused meet them.
“I’m accountable to the board, not the management committee; therefore, with due respect, I will not be explaining anything to you or your committee,” he said in an e-mail to Nair.
Two days after the story appeared in The Mercury, Nair was charged with five counts, including “gross misconduct” and “gross insolence”, relating to The Mercury report.
Carnie immediately wrote to Mabunda, and met him in person, to assure him that Nair was innocent and to express concern that it would be a miscarriage of justice if Nair were victimised.
This assurance was ignored and the inquiry went ahead, with Nair pleading not guilty to all the charges.
Carnie subsequently signed an affidavit under oath to explaining that Nair had not provided any information to him, although he was ethically bound to not reveal the identity of his confidential informants.
He gave the same testimony under oath at Nair’s disciplinary inquiry and was cross-examined by Ezemvelo’s attorney and inquiry chairman Nxumalo.
In his affidavit, Carnie stated: “If Mr Nair had provided me with any information relating to these matters, I would not be in a position to swear to this affidavit as I would be committing perjury and/or acting in conflict with my ethical responsibilities as a journalist. However, since Mr Nair did not communicate with me or provide any information to me regarding these articles, I am at liberty to put these facts before the disciplinary committee and swear to these matters relating to Mr Nair.”
The inquiry appears to have ignored the testimony of Nair, Hlela and Carnie, choosing instead to accept Mabunda’s suspicion that Nair was the most likely source.
Inquiry chairman Nxumalo made no written findings on the credibility of Hlela’s or Carnie’s evidence but suggested that Nair had failed to provide a “plausible explanation” as to how the media got the information in question.
“Instead he opted for a bare denial. It is a well established principle in law that if you are placed on the scene, as it is common cause, bare denial is not a defence,” said Nxumalo.
It is understood that Nair, represented by advocate Anesh Sukdeo, has lodged an appeal against conviction and sentence with the board of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
Ezemvelo sources say Nair’s axing has sent a chilling message to staff that they face the same fate if suspected of communicating with the media.
Approached for comment, an Ezemvelo spokesman said: “It is true that Mr Nair was dismissed. He however has a fiveday period to lodge an appeal.
“I unfortunately cannot divulge or discuss the reasons for his dismissal as this is an internal issue between the employer and an employee.”