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Wheels coming off for Cape Town's embattled transport chief

08 January 2018 - 10:29 By Dave Chambers
Melissa Whitehead receives an award in 2015 from Sir Peter Hendy, president of the International Association of Public Transport.
Melissa Whitehead receives an award in 2015 from Sir Peter Hendy, president of the International Association of Public Transport.
Image: Supplied

Cape Town’s transport commissioner is at the centre of three investigations which could leave her jobless‚ facing criminal charges and having to repay misspent millions.

Melissa Whitehead‚ 52‚ faces a slew of allegations of misconduct‚ and she is also at the centre of mayor Patricia de Lille’s fight to save her job. De Lille is under investigation for allegedly covering up claims of wrongdoing by Whitehead.

Whitehead‚ head of the council transport and urban development authority‚ has until Friday to argue why she should not be suspended after the City of Cape Town agreed she and city manager Achmat Ebrahim must face disciplinary action.

A report by attorneys Bowman Gilfillan said there were “allegations ... of a serious nature” against the two managers. A presiding officer and a prosecutor with wide-ranging powers will be appointed by the council audit committee for their disciplinary hearings.

The prosecutor will also probe a claim by Ebrahim that De Lille ordered him to cover up allegations of misconduct against Whitehead. The prosecutor’s findings on De Lille will be reported to Speaker Dirk Smit‚ who will consider them in terms of disciplinary procedures for councillors.

On Friday‚ the council also appointed Bowman Gilfillan to investigate allegations against Whitehead levelled by ANC councillor Bheki Hadebe‚ who claimed in November that she was involved in unfairly advantaging a Chinese company‚ BYD‚ to secure a tender for electric MyCiTi buses.

Hadebe told the transport and urban development committee that council officials met BYD representatives in China and in Whitehead’s boardroom before the tender was advertised. He also claimed the company wrote the specifications for the tender.

Council documents in the possession of TimesLIVE show that on August 24‚ 2015‚ council contract management chief Sidney Pretorius wrote to John Martheze‚ manager of operations integration in Whitehead’s department‚ saying: “We are in the process of facilitating procurement of electric buses from BYD.”

The agenda for a visit to Cape Town the following month by BYD executives AD Huang and Brian Li included the entries “finalise and conclude business agreement” and “confirmation of rollout times”.

But the deadline for tenders — five companies submitted bids — was only in early 2016‚ and BYD was awarded the R286-million contract in August 2016.

The fresh Bowman Gilfillan probe will also examine allegations against Whitehead levelled by Mike Evans‚ a partner at law firm Webber Wentzel.

Evans claims to have sufficient evidence to criminally charge Whitehead and to hold her personally responsible for misspent money.

He blew the whistle on the transport chief in a November WhatsApp message to her political boss‚ mayoral committee member Brett Herron.

The message said: “I’m concerned that you could suffer damage if you and your colleagues do not initiate very soon a full inquiry into MW‚ probably with a suspension.

“Things are starting to emerge and you and your colleagues run the risk of being dragged down with her if you do not act.

“The Sunday Times has gathered evidence against her which may run on Sunday. I have far more evidence of the fruitless and wasteful expenditure for which she’s been responsible running into literally millions of rand and for which she should be personally and criminally responsible. I am happy to present that to an inquiry."

The third investigation involving Whitehead involves the theft of up to R43-million from the MyCiTi service. Auditors PwC pointed out weaknesses in financial controls in the MyCiTi fare system in a December 2014 report to Whitehead‚ and at least 22 cashiers have since been fired.

Steps to halt the thefts were implemented as recently as December 1‚ when a new cash reconciliation system was introduced.

PwC has been investigating the scale of the thefts but has struggled because of anomalies in data. The council resolved on Friday that the firm’s reports must be tabled at its next meeting‚ which is scheduled for January 31.

In response to written questions from TimesLIVE‚ Whitehead said: “I have no comment.”