Top judge cleared

Date: 11 Dec 2006
Hlophe off hook in controversial case Cape High Court Judge President John Hlophe will return to the bench after the Christmas break without the threat of impeachment hanging over his head. This after his peers accepted his explanation about his financial interests and decided that there would no useful purpose in pursuing the matter any further at this stage. Yesterday, the Judicial Service Commission, headed by Chief Justice Pius Langa, accepted Judge Hlophe's assertion that he had received oral permission from the late justice minister, Dullah Omar, to receive payment from the Oasis Group of Companies. Judge Hlophe said he received permission to act as a trustee of the Oasis Crescent Retirement Fund and denied he was on a monthly retainer. The JSC has been divided over the issue since its last meeting in October, at which members differed about whether a complaint against Judge Hlophe about his alleged business interests in Oasis was serious enough to warrant a formal impeachment inquiry in terms of section 177 of the constitution. Had the JSC decided against him, he would have been the first judge to face an impeachment inquiry. Judge Ismail Hussein resigned earlier this year before he could face an impeachment inquiry for gross misconduct. The commission's decision not to pursue the matter against Judge Hlophe - the third most senior judge president in the country - was not unanimous. A carefully crafted statement left more questions than answers. The JSC said that "after consideration of the evidence at present available to it, the commission decided there was no evidence to contradict Judge President Hlophe's assertion that he had received|oral permission from the late minister of justice, Dullah Omar". "In the circumstances, the commission decided that no useful purpose would be served in pursing the matter any further at this stage." However, it noted that another complaint against Judge Hlophe by Cape advocate Peter Hazell could not be finalised until the judge had replied to a request for information. Hazell in August wrote to the JSC asking it to launch a full investigation into Judge Hlophe's conduct in the light of several well-publicised incidents, including the Oasis matter; that he permitted|Old Mutual to pay for an end-of-year lunch for judges; and that he labelled a local attorney "a piece of white shit who should go back to Holland". Judge Hlophe has repeatedly denied these claims and is on record as saying he is a victim of a racist smear campaign. African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart, who lodged the original complaint with the JSC against Judge Hlophe, said yesterday it was strange that there was no record of permission given by Omar. Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla confirmed in parliament earlier this year that there was no such record in writing. Swart said yesterday, however, he would have thought that a minister would have recorded it somehow. It was in any event inappropriate for a judge to receive monetary benefit from Oasis without the public being aware of permission begin granted. "This highlights the urgent need for full disclosure provisions by judges. We also support the JSC's recommendation that legislation should be passed urgently to clarify the precise circumstances under which permission can be granted." The cabinet last month approved a draft bill that will ban judges from moonlighting and makes it compulsory for them and their spouses to declare assets and financial interests in a special register. A total of 15 complaints against judges are currently before the JSC. Angela Quintal, Christina Gallagher & Estelle Ellis The Star 11/12/06