E-mails support suspicions of money laundering as Guptas spread tentacles far and wide

04 June 2017 - 02:00
Local banks refuse to host accounts for Ajay and Atul Gupta's companies.
Image: MARTIN RHODES Local banks refuse to host accounts for Ajay and Atul Gupta's companies.

The Guptas appear to have laundered almost half-a-billion rands through India's state-owned Bank of Baroda over 10 months.

Using leaked Gupta e-mails, the Sunday Times has pieced together transfer requests from Oakbay to Sahara CEO Ashu Chawla which blow the lid on how the family moved money around and out of South Africa.

Their modus operandi: break down large sums into lesser amounts and shuttle them through a number of companies before they reachthe Bank of Baroda.

Four of South Africa's major banks - Standard, FNB, Absa and Nedbank - closed the accounts of companies controlled by the Guptas between December 2015 and April last year.

In a subsequent court case launched by then finance minister Pravin Gordhan, papers filed by the banks revealed they had feared money laundering was taking place.

Gordhan asked the High Court in Pretoria to declare he had no authority to intervene with the banks - which the Guptas had pressed him to do.

Some of the transactions described in the e-mails are among 72 transfers worth R6.8-billion that the Financial Intelligence Centre flagged because "there had been no apparent business or lawful purpose" for them.

The court is yet to rule on Gordhan's application.

E-mails sent between February and November 2015 back up the suspicion of money laundering. They show a series of 41 transactions in which money moved inexplicably in and out of Gupta companies to the Bank of Baroda.

The Gupta companies at the heart of the transactions are Oakbay, Tegeta, Mabengela Investments, Westdawn Investments, Islandsite Investment, Confident Concept and Aerohaven Trading.

President Jacob Zuma's son Duduzane was a director of Westdawn, Mabengela and Islandsite at the time.

The money moved in amounts ranging from a few thousand rands up to R49-million, totalling more than R470-million.

In some instances, Chawla was asked to make transfers of more than R1-million from Atul Gupta's account to the Bank of Baroda. The requests gave no reasons for the transfers and Chawla only responded "done".

Some of the transfers the e-mails reveal in 2015 include:

• On March 4, R2-million was moved from Confident to Islandsite, then R3.5-million was sent from Islandsite to Oakbay and R20-million was sent from Oakbay to the Bank of Baroda. On the same day, a R20-million payment was made from "Computers" to Islandsite, which transferred R20-million to Oakbay, which made a payment of R17-million to the Bank of Baroda.

• On March 12, R4.5-million was transferred from Oakbay to Aerohaven, which transferred R2-million to the Bank of India Oceanfront and R3.1-million to the Bank of Baroda Oceanfront.

• On July 28 there were nine transfers of R5-million each and one of R4-million from Confident to the Bank of Baroda. On the same day, there was a R49-million transfer from Oakbay to Islandsite. The same amount was then transferred from Islandsite to Confident and then to the Bank of Baroda.

• On October 14, Islandsite transferred R11-million to Oakbay, which sent the same amount to the Bank of Baroda.

• On October 23, R38-million was transferred from Confident to Islandsite and then to the Bank of Baroda.

The pattern of transfers had "all the hallmarks of money-laundering activity", said Frans Cronje, CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

"This is absolutely characteristic of highly sophisticated money laundering where you try a number of things ... You try to break the direct trail between yourself and the transaction to make it more difficult for regulatory authorities to see the transaction as it is."

Cronje said breaking transactions into smaller amounts and diverting funds through a number of companies was also done to avoid taxation.

"This information corroborates what we thought on why the banks closed the bank accounts," he said.

Subsequent to the closures by the banks, the family continued banking with the Bank of Baroda.

But in April this year, the bank was under pressure from its headquarters in India to terminate its relationship with the family and their associated businesses.

Cronje said the penalties for money laundering could be heavy fines to possible jail time.

The Guptas' attorney, Gert van der Merwe, said he had advised his clients not to respond to media inquiries until the authenticity of the e-mails had been established. "I'm happy to support a judicial inquiry [into allegations of state capture]. We will participate and co-operate fully and that will give me the opportunity to rely on authentic documents."