Engineer jailed for taking bribes

Karen MacGregor
Globe and Mail
June 5, 2002

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – Masupha Sole, former head of one of Africa’s biggest engineering projects, was pushed into Lesotho High Court in a wheelchair yesterday to hear himself sentenced to 18 years in prison for taking bribes from foreign contractors, including the Canadian engineering firm Acres International Ltd.

The bribes, amounting to well over $1-million, related to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project – a system of dams and tunnels in the tiny mountain kingdom that were designed to supply water to the parched industrial heartland of South Africa.

Mr. Sole, 54, was in the wheelchair because of injuries suffered in a car accident. Acres has denied any intent to bribe him.

The case has sent shockwaves through the international engineering community. For the first time in a major prosecution, alleged bribe givers (often Western companies) as well as bribe takers (often Third World officials) are being pursued in the courts.

Three firms, including Acres, already face parallel trials in Lesotho, and the Canadian firm’s case is expected to be the first to reach a verdict. The World Bank, which seeks to bar corrupt corrupt firms from ventures it finances, has said it will examine the evidence.

Acres, based in Oakville, Ont., did about $21-million worth of work on the project. It is accused of paying a total of $720,000 to an agent who later passed about $400,000 to Mr. Sole through Swiss bank accounts.

Acres says it is innocent and had no idea that money it paid to its on-the-ground representative in Lesotho ended up in Mr. Sole’s possession. The Acres case, now almost complete, has been adjourned until June 26 for final arguments.

Last month Judge Brendan Cullinan convicted Mr. Sole on 13 criminal counts and acquitted him on five others. The sentences he imposed yesterday add up to 57 years, but most are to run concurrently.

The case began in 1994 as an investigation of expense-account irregularities and made headlines in 1999 as a combined prosecution of Mr. Sole and 20 companies, most from the United States and Europe.

The combined case eventually was abandoned in favour of separate trials. It remains unclear how many of the companies will be tried. Those charged so far are Acres, Lahmeyer International GmbH of Germany and Dumez SA of France.

Mr. Sole, once a prominent engineer, a well paid project chief and a political candidate with a Lesotho opposition party, has fallen hard. His assets have been frozen, he is suffering spinal injuries sustained in the car accident, and he faces a long imprisonment. He qualified for a seat in Lesotho’s parliament in last month’s election but is unlikely to be able to take it.

Judge Cullinan said yesterday that Mr. Sole had shown no remorse for his crimes, and that as an executive and engineer he must have know the sources and purposes of payments made to his accounts at banks in Lesotho, Switzerland and South Africa.

Mr. Sole said he will appeal the conviction and sentence and apply for bail in the meantime.

Last month, the judge found that Mr. Sole took bribes from many firms and consortiums after being made head of the Lesotho Highland Development Authority, the body in charge of the water project, in 1986.

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