Choppies Enterprises Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Ramachandran Ottapathu and his deputy, Farouk Ismail are demanding a compensation of P450 million from accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (Pwc) following a 75 percent decline in market value of Choppies shares traded on the Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE) and Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE).
Ottapathu and Ismail, who are the two largest shareholders at Choppies, demand P254 million and P197 million respectively. Ottapathu further demands R417 000 (about P290 000).
PwC which ranks as the second-largest professional services network in the world — and is considered one of the Big Four accounting firms, along with Deloitte, EY and KPMG — was at the helm as auditor of Choppies when the retail giant suffered turbulence.
According to court papers, Ottapathu and Ismail, who are represented by Ramalepa Attorneys, in January 2018 when Choppies began discussions with Pwc regarding engagement of Pwc as external auditors of Choppies and its subsidiaries.
From that time, Pwc was given the opportunity to obtain insight into the business of Choppies and on or about 25th January 2018, Pwc presented to Ottapathu in his capacity as CEO, its fee proposal.
In the fee proposal, according to court papers, Rudi Binedell a partner at Pwc confirmed that he had assessed Choppies engagement risk in order to ensure that Pwc had a complete understanding of the business of Choppies as it is only possible before presenting the fee proposal. Binedell had completed process that confirmed that Pwc were independent of Choppies within the meaning of appropriate regulatory and professional requirements, and that the objectivity of the proposed audit team was not impaired.
Agreement was reached on 9 March 2018. According to the court documents, Choppies engaged Pwc on the basis of Pwc and Binedell’s representations and assurances contained in the Audit Agreement 2018, and also on the basis that Pwc and Binedell were independent and that Pwc and Binedell would remain independent throughout the course of audit.
In terms of the Audit Agreement 2018 and the ISA, specifically ISA 260 (Communication with Those Charged with Governance), Pwc was required to plan their audit and communicate their plan to Choppies and specifically those charged with corporate governance, namely the audit committee.
Ismail and Ottapathu contend that from at least 19 March 2018, Pwc and Binedell were aware, or ought reasonably to have been aware that, they were required to; finalise the audit and report key findings to the Audit Committee by no later than the end of September 2018 and issue the final statements and their audit report by no later than the end of September 2018.
On the 6 July 2018, Binedell, on behalf Pwc, presented on behalf of Pwc, an audit plan for Choppies and its subsidiaries to the Audit Committee for their consideration and approval. The presentation set out how Pwc would discharge their responsibilities under the audit among them confirming their independence and compliance with ISA 20; understanding of stakeholders’ expectations and analysis of risks.
The audit timetable reveal that, about May or June 2018, Pwc would attend the stock counts and finalise the audits strategy and communicate the audit approach to the committee; by June 2018, Pwc would set out its planned audit approach and response to the risk they have identified for the audit to date.
By September 2018, Pwc would produce a report that summarises the key issues arising from the audit and present to the audit committee; produce a draft key audit matter and obtain clearance; approve the financial statements; and sign off on the statutory report. Pwc proposed a fee of approximately P8 480 00.
BINEDELL’S COMPROMISED INDEPENDENCE
In court documents, Ottapathu and Ismail allege that on March 2018, the date which Pwc made its preliminary presentation to the Audit Committee, Binedell attended a dinner with Robert Matthews and Allan Muller, members of Choppies Audit Committee.
During the dinner, the court documents say, Binedell discussed with Matthews and Muller various issues relating to Choppies and Pwc’s audit of Choppies for the 2018 financial year.
Muller requested that Binedell joins Choppies as the Group Finance Director and hereby solicited his employment by Choppies. Subsequent to the meeting, Ottapathu and Ismail, allege that Muller and/or Matthews repeated this request to Binedell and indeed other of Choppies’ management on several occasions.
“Matthews had suggested that the Choppies Board should consider Binedell be given 60 million shares in Choppies under the employee share option scheme, as an incentive,” says the court documents.
“Ottapathu was requested by Muller and/or Matthews to formalise an offer to Binedell in writing.”
The lawyers representing Ottapathu and Ismail contended that Muller and/or Matthews made these requests and thereby solicited the employment of Binedell when they ought to have known that this was in contravention of the Audit Agreement 2018 and that it would compromise Binedell’s independence and the independence of Pwc throughout the audit.
“As a result of these facts, Pwc bore an obligation, contractually and in terms of their ethical obligation to immediately; take action in accordance with ISA 260 and IESBA Code of Ethics, and report such threats to those charged with governance and then either (1) to resign as auditors of Choppies; and alternatively and at the very least, to remove Binedell from the audit team,” Ramalepa Attorneys argues.
Pwc and Binedell, lawyers argue, failed to do so and Pwc proceeded to conduct that audits of Choppies and its subsidiaries, with the audit team as it was then constituted, led by Binedell.
AUDIT DELAYS AND SUSPENSION OF OTTAPATHU
On or about 17th September 2018, and at a Boarding meeting, Binedell advised the Board of Directors of Choppies that he would not be able to finalise audit in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe due to a number of audit issues, some of which affect all regions and of which were specific to certain regions only.
Binedell identified a number of issues of concern in which he implicated Ottapathu’s management of Choppies, and specifically the following a) related party transactions, particularly Fours Cash and Carry; Purchase Price Allocations on assets acquired; allegedly suspicious cash flows between Choppies and Devland Cash and Carry; issues with ZIA and concerns on money laundering accusations in Zimbabwe; latest provisional set of consolidated financials provided on the morning of 17 September 2018- showing a material deviation from both last year’s results and the budgeted figures for the 2018 financial and reportable irregularities identified by the auditors during the audit process.
Binedell noted his concerns about lack of transparency as well pressure from Pwc Africa Chief Operation on his association with Choppies due to Zimbabwe press issues.
Other issues he raised advising Choppies to obtain legal advice in South Africa and Botswana arising from transactions and advice on how the Board should as well as on the Board potential “exposure.”
Owing to the concerns raised by Binedell, Pwc felt exposed and would not “sign off” on the financials until various matters were resolved, therefore Choppies would not meet the deadline to publish audited annual financial results by 30 September 2018.
Consequent to Binedell’s report Ottapathu was suspended as Choppies CEO, trading of Choppies shares be suspended and a forensic audit was commissioned.
Ottapathu responded to Binedell’s concerns by proving information and documentation but Pwc insisted on an independent forensic auditor.
Failure to meet the audited financial results on time led to the suspension on BSE and later on JSE.
Other mitigation efforts, including impairing 50 percent of the assets on Choppies balance sheet also did not bear fruits.
Ottapathu, Ismail conclude that Pwc disregarded the statutory deadlines and that as dully appointed auditors of Choppies, Pwc and Binedell occupied stator office and they were obliged to among others, comply with Companies Act and Financial Reporting Act .
The duo conclude that by virtue of the role performed by Binedell and Pwc as the statutory auditor of Choppies and its subsidiaries and in implementing the Audit Agreement 2018; and by the virtue of their knowledge, Binedell and Pwc owed a legal duty to Ottapathu and Ismail as shareholders of Choppies.
Ottapathu and Ismail, through their lawyers, insist that Binedell and Pwc breached their duty to shareholders, when Binedell accepted a dinner invitation on 19 March 2018, from Matthews and Muller and then Pwc and Binedell then failed to eliminate the threatens to their independence arising therefrom or to apply appropriate safeguards to reduce such threats to an acceptable level.
The Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP)’s decision to reject and appeal the High Court’s verdict on a case involving High Court Judge, Dr Zein Kebonang has frustrated the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and Judge Kebonang’s back to work discussions.
JSC and Kebonang have been in constant discussions over the latter’s return to work following a ruling by a High Court panel of judges clearing him of any wrong doing in the National Petroleum Fund criminal case filed by the DPP. However the finalization of the matter has been hanged on whether the DPP will appeal the matter or not – the prosecution body has since appealed.
Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) top brass has declined a request by Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) to negotiate the legal fees occasioned by 2019 general elections petition in which the latter disputed in court the outcome of the elections.
This publication is made aware that UDC Vice President Dumelang Saleshando was left with an egg on his face after the BDP big wigs, comprising of party Chairman Slumber Tsogwane and Secretary General Mpho Balopi rejected his plea.
“He was told that this is a legal matter and therefore their (UDC) lawyer should engage ours (BDP) for negotiations because it is way far from our jurisdiction,” BDP Head of Communications, Kagelelo Kentse, told this publication.
This spelt doom for the main opposition party and Saleshando who seems not to have confidence and that the UDC lawyers have the dexterity to negotiate these kind of matters. It is not clear whether Saleshando requested UDC lawyer Boingotlo Toteng to sit at the table with Bogopa Manewe, Tobedza and Co, who are representing the BDP to strike a deal as per the BDP top echelons suggested.
“From my understanding, the matter is dealt with politically as the two parties are negotiating how to resolve it, but by far nothing has come to me on the matter. So I believe they are still substantively engaging each other,” Toteng said briefly in an interview on Thursday.
UDC petitioners saddled with costs after mounting an unprecedented legal suit before the court to try and overturn BDP’s October 2019 victory. The participants in the legal matter involves 15 parliamentary candidates’ and nine councillors. The UDC petitioned the court and contested the outcome of the elections citing “irregularities in some of the constituencies”.
In a brief ruling in January 2020, Judge President Ian Kirby on behalf of a five-member panel said: “We have no jurisdiction to entertain these appeals. These appeals must be struck out each with costs including costs of counsel”. This was a second blow to the UDC in about a month after their 2019 appeals were dismissed by the High Court a day before Christmas Day.
This week BDP attorneys decided to attach UDC petitioners’ property in a bid to settle the debts. UDC President Duma Boko is among those that will see their property being attached with 14 of his party members. “We have attached some and we are on course. So far, Dr. Mpho Pheko (who contested Gaborone Central) and that of Dr, Micus Chimbombi (who contested Kgalagadi South) will have their assets being sold on the 5th of February 2021,” BDP attorney Basimane Bogopa said.
Asked whether they met with UDC lawyers to try solve the matter, Bogopa said no and added. “Remember we are trying to raise the client’s funds, so after these two others will follow. Right now we are just prioritising those from Court of Appeal, as soon as the high court is done with taxation we will attach.”
Saleshando, when contacted about the outcomes of the meeting with the BDP, told WeekendPost that: “It would not be proper and procedural for me to tell you about the meeting outcomes before I share with UDC National Executive Committee (NEC), so I will have to brief them first.”
UDC NEC will meet on the 20th of next month to deal with a number of thorny issues including settling the legal fees. Negotiations with other opposition parties- Alliance for Progressives and Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) are also on the agenda.
Currently, UDC has raised P44 238 of the P565 000 needed to cover bills from the Court of Appeal (CoA). This is the amount in a UDC trust account which is paltry funds equating 7.8 per cent of the overall required money. In the past despite the petitioners maintaining that there was promise to assist them to settle legal fees, UDC Spokesperson, Moeti Mohwasa then said the party has never agreed in no way to help them.
“We have just been put in debt by someone,” one of the petitioners told this publication in the past. “President’s (Duma Boko) message was clear at the beginning that money has been sourced somewhere to help with the whole process but now we are here there is nothing and we are just running around trying to make ends meet and pay,” added the petitioner in an interview UDC NEC has in December last year directed all the 57 constituencies to each raise a minimum of P10, 000. The funds will be used to settle debts that are currently engulfing the petitioners with Sheriffs, who are already hovering around ready to attach their assets.
The petitioners, despite the party intervention, have every right to worry. “This is so because ‘the deadline for this initiative (P10, 000 per constituency) is the end of the first quarter of this year (2021),” a period in which the sheriffs would have long auctioned the properties.
President of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) Duma Boko’s alliance with former President Lt Gen Ian Khama continues to unsettle some quarters within the opposition collective, who believe the duo, if not managed, will once again result in an unsuccessful bid for government in 2024.
While Khama has denied that he has undeclared preference to have Boko remaining as leader of UDC, many believe that the two have a common programme, while other opposition leaders remain on the side-lines.