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Updated 24 May 2013

Brown and the missing millions

Although she lost no money in the Fidentia scandal, Susan Erasmus feels deeply distressed by Brown's lenient sentence.

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I have no right to be both judge and jury here – I have not spent days wading through endless paperwork on the case. But my question is this: if this former Fidentia boss has essentially been let off the hook, who is guilty then?

I am fully aware that the Fidentia case was a very complex one. I am also aware of the fact that one may not question a judge's verdict. After all, this is the person who knows the facts of the case inside out. Or so we are told to believe. I really, really would like to believe this. Apparently the paperwork in this trial was endless. One can but wonder whether shedding light on what really happened was indeed its main aim.

And yet, there is something deeply medieval in my character that requires punishment to be meted out for the untold suffering brought about by the millions that disappeared. We are talking widows and orphans of mining accident victims here. These are people for whom a pension payout of even R1500 a month could mean the difference between survival and real deprivation. If Brown isn't the guilty one, I want someone else to be punished.

Poor J. Arthur Brown

Brown's pleas in mitigation of sentence – how his accounts were frozen, how his wife 'had to flee', the family's financial hardship, blah, blah, blah all left me cold. He was still rolling in the cash compared to the miners' widows and orphans. And no doubt pretty soon will be rolling in the cash again. Fraud convictions never seem to stop anyone from flourishing financially a year or two down the line. Funny that.

Why do other people who embezzle less than a million from from their employers (one I know of used the money to pay for her daughter's cancer treatment) get sentences of ten years or more? Something is very wrong with this picture.

By essentially letting Brown off with a R150 000 fine and a suspended sentence, the message is given loud and clear: make sure you rake in enough cash to pay a good lawyer and pay a fine, and by next week this time you could be sipping cocktails by the seaside in five-star luxury.

Just a few troubling questions:

  • Could you raise R150 000 overnight?
  • If you were a bail bondsman, would you lend money to J. Arthur Brown?
  • So how did Brown manage to pay this fine and where does this money come from?
  • How did he pay his lawyer?

The missing millions

The money – at least R405 million of it – is still gone.

 It seems to have filtered through an elaborate and untraceable escape route similar to Odessa – the route senior Nazis had pre-planned as Germany collapsed at the end of World War 2. And paper trails tell nasty stories – there's a reason why Hitler apparently never put his own name to any of the documents dealing with the extermination camps. If he were ever to have been confronted with it, he could deny any knowledge. And the minor minions who did sign the papers could hide behind the age-old excuse of 'just following orders'.

But at least at the end of WW2 there were some people who were tried and found guilty. But apart from Brown's accountant, who went to prison many years ago, no one else seems to be held ultimately responsible for the Fidentia disaster. And what’s more, Maddock was very suddenly freed in 2010 after serving only two years of his seven-year sentence.

And again back to the cash: at least R405 million is missing. Someone has to have it, or must have assets they bought with it, unless it has been gambled away or spent on drugs.

On his beat

One can only pass the buck so far, but if something hideous has happened on your beat, you are responsible for it. If you are in a position to benefit or get credit for things working out well on your beat, you also need to take responsibility when they go wrong. That's the reason bosses get paid so much. They are in the spotlight and in the firing line. They shouldn't be allowed to duck out of that.

There is in the end not much difference between killing someone and depriving them of their means to survive. In the second one you just don't have to look them in the eye when you pull the trigger. So much easier.

So unless the money is found, or someone else is held responsible and prosecuted a little more successfully, I remain deeply unsatisfied. I am not in a position to say Brown himself is guilty, but someone has to be.

Just one question I would like to ask the judge: would you invest your pension money with this guy?

(Name updated 19 May 2013)

Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer for Health24.

 
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