Sunday Times STLive By BIÉNNE HUISMAN, 2012-04-08

Arrest threat as Levitt lingers in US

Rael Levitt . Asset Alliance CEO. Picture: Russell Roberts.
Image: Russell Roberts

Embattled auctioneer Rael Levitt was still in the US yesterday - saying he was "not yet sure" when he will return to South Africa to face serious allegations over his business practices.

The former Auction Alliance chief executive is due to appear before the National Consumer Commission (NCC) in Centurion on Tuesday to answer questions about bidding irregularities.

But, when the Sunday Times reached him on the phone yesterday, he said: "I am travelling in the United States. I am not yet sure whether I will be there on Tuesday or not."

If Levitt does not appear it will be the fourth time that he has missed a scheduled meeting with the NCC since a scandal erupted over his controversial auction of Quoin Rock wine estate to philanthropist Wendy Appelbaum in December.

NCC commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala was taken aback when told of Levitt's whereabouts, having previously been told that Levitt was unable to return to South Africa due to religious commitments in Israel.

She said that if he missed the meeting on Tuesday, the NCC would approach the courts to obtain a warrant of arrest for Levitt.

"We have been patient. We decided to make the meeting on Tuesday because it is after a long weekend. Before that he missed three appearances before the commission," she said.

Last week the NCC found that Levitt had conducted a "mock" auction at which he sold the Stellenbosch wine farm to Appelbaum for R55-million.

The commission found that Levitt had falsified the bidders' record and that he planted a ghost bidder to drive up the price. Appelbaum lodged a formal complaint against Levitt after the auction with the NCC.

Once an industry leader, Auction Alliance's future is now uncertain and staff have reportedly been retrenched.

The company recorded a turnover of R300-million last year, based on asset sales to the value of R6-billion.

Levitt had previously avoided testifying before the NCC, but undertook to appear on Tuesday.

He requested that the NCC sponsor his airfare from Cape Town plus his accommodation in Centurion.

Said Mohlala: "This is not standard, and is unreasonable as we are an underfunded body. But in the interest of taking the process forward we decided to comply.

"We booked him in at an economy bed and breakfast and booked him a flight on a budget airline. If he misses the meeting, he will have to reimburse us between R3000 and R4000 for these travel expenses too."

The NCC last week also declared that Auction Alliance was liable to pay an administrative fine of 10% of its annual turnover.

The Estate Agency Affairs Board will also be asked to withdraw the company's fidelity certificate - which will effectively bar it from selling property - in the wake of the Quoin Rock debacle.

Mohlala warned that Levitt might be slapped with a R1-million fine or 12 months in jail. A representative of the National Prosecuting Authority is due to sit in on Tuesday's meeting.

Among the NCC's findings are that Levitt:

Falsified the bidders' record;

Made glaring inconsistencies in his statement;

Planted a ghost bidder, Deon Leygonie, in the audience to increase the price at the auction; and

Gave Leygonie the "wrong impression" that he was a proxy bidder for an offshore buyer, Ariel Gerbi.

Levitt's attorney, Alan Smiedt, yesterday declined to comment on his client's whereabouts.