John Duarte vs Mail & Guardian


Wed, Feb 29, 2012

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

July 15, 2010
 
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr John Duarte and the M&G.
 
Complaint
 
John Duarte, former Acting CEO of Thubelisha Homes (Pty) Ltd, a section 21 company established by the then Department of Housing, complained about a page one teaser and a page 4 article in the Mail & Guardian on October 2, 2009.
 
The page one teaser was headlined Duarte and the housing racket and had the subheading How Jessie’s husband took advantage of housing agency closure. It also referred the reader to the page 4 story.
 
The page 4 story by Adriaan Basson, Ilham Rawoot and Glynnis Underhill was headlined Not safe as houses.
 
Duarte complained that:
 
  • It was not true that he was married to Jessie Duarte and said they were divorced in 2001;
  • It was not true that governance questions were being asked about him and the way he was winding down Thubelisha;
  • The newspaper wrongly accused him of conflict of interest in proposing that his private company take over state projects in which Thubelisha had invested funds;
  • The newspaper wrongly accused him and his personal assistant of spending tens of thousands of Thubelisha’s rand on domestic business class plane flights ;
  • It wrongly accused him of refusing the offer of free office space in Johannesburg and renting expensive offices with the shut down budget.
 Analysis
 
Marriage
 
Duarte asserts that the teaser on the front page and the statement in the story that he was the husband of Jessie Duarte, the chief operating officer in President Jacob Zuma’s office, were misleading as he had already divorced his former wife. He submitted a copy of the divorce decree dated April 20, 2001.
 
On the day the newspaper published the story, Duarte’s former wife complained to the newspaper, also stating that they had divorced.
 
The M&G responded by adding the following to its online version of the story: “Jessie Duarte, who is chief operations officer in the Presidency, told the Mail and Guardian she and John Duarte had been divorced ‘ten years ago’ but remained close friends. However John Duarte told the Mail & Guardian a fortnight ago that they were married and Jessie has previously told the Mail & Guardian that they had broken up and reconciled. Senior ANC officials who know the couple described them as married, and according to deeds office records they still co-own a house in Observatory in Johannesburg.”
 
The print version still stands unchanged.
 
M&G reporter Underhill says she asked Duarte two weeks before the story was published if he was married to Ms Duarte and he “responded in the affirmative”.
 
Duarte denies this.
 
The decree tells us the truth: the Duartes are divorced. What other people, including senior ANC officials, believe to be the status of the marriage is irrelevant.
 
We have Underhill’s word against Duarte’s about their conversation. There is a possibility that Underhill misunderstood what Duarte said in as much as there is a possibility that Duarte allowed the impression that Underhill had to go unchallenged. He certainly did not challenge the information when it was first published on September 21, 2009. He now says he did not do so at the time because he didn’t think it was a major issue.
 
All the same, it is difficult to see any benefit Duarte would get out of making the world believe he was still married to Jessie.
 
Having been alerted to this mistake by Jessie, the newspaper should have gracefully corrected it both in the print and the online versions without the unseemly explanation it added to its online version. It is not unusual for observers to believe that a divorced couple is still married.
 
The M&G should have changed its story and not just placed an addendum at the bottom of an incorrect one.
 
Governance
 
Duarte argued that it was “false and untrue” that governance questions were being asked about him and the way he was winding down Thubelisha.
 
This argument ignores that sources alerted the newspaper to the story and then provided documents and that the newspaper asked Duarte questions related to this matter – all this indicating that governance questions were being asked. It is difficult to understand what issue Duarte is raising here.
 
Conflict of interest
 
The M&G reported: “While employed by government to wind down Thubelisha, the agency’s acting chief executive…is proposing that his private company take over state projects in which Thubelisha had invested funds.”
 
In his response to the written questions from the newspaper Duarte had said: “In so far as the Mossel Bay municipality is concerned the projects discussed were not part of Thubelisha’s projects. Because Thubelisha closed operationally at the end of July 2009 and projects were handed back to the principal at that date. There is no conflict that I am aware of; processes and procedures were followed.”
 
In the story the newspaper makes it clear that Duarte denied any wrongdoing and says he said (Cabinet Minister Lindiwe) Sisulu’s closure plan for Thubelisha allowed for a private company to be formed by the agency’s staff.
 
M&G also mentions that the department rallied behind Duarte “after the M&G established that his company…had proposed to the Mossel Bay municipality that it continue with projects Thubelisha was contracted to do”.
 
From this it appears that Duarte’s side was told.
 
Having given Duarte an opportunity to respond to the allegations, the newspaper then goes on to give its own interpretation of the facts: “a conflict of interest remains in that he would be torn between closing down projects in a way that is beneficial to government as a shareholder or to himself as heir to those projects…The situation would not be unlike a liquidator buying some of the assets that he is supposed to dispose of at a maximum value to creditors.”
 
It is this interpretation that Duarte is contesting: “The allusion to the duties of a liquidator is false. A liquidator would have assets to dispose of. In this case…there were no projects being continued.”
 
Duarte told the Ombudsman’s office that the Elangeni project in Mossel Bay was actually completed by Thubelisha and that exploratory talks on other projects took place between the Western Cape Provincial Government and a number of interested parties, one of which was his company, but nothing materialised as no funds were budgeted for the projects.
 
It is clear from the above that Duarte is not denying what the newspaper said but rather saying that he has his own interpretation of it.  
 
Travel expenses
 
Here too Duarte is not denying the figure of R118 824,00 published by the newspaper but explains that it “is reasonable when measured against national turnover of R42 million per month”.
 
“All these disbursements are properly accounted for,” he wrote to this office.
 
Office space
 
Here again Duarte is not saying the newspaper was wrong but rather saying he can explain what happened.
 
He was specifically asked by the M&G about the free space and he now says he “inadvertently omitted” to answer the question in his written responses to the newspaper “as there were so many questions to be answered in a very short space of time at an exceptionally busy time”.
 
His explanation is that the offer of the free space came after the commitment was made to take over substantially smaller premises in Parktown.
 
 
Findings
 
  • On the marriage, the M&G is in breach of clause 1.1 of the code in that it incorrectly reported that John Duarte was married to Jessie.
 
  • All the other complaints are dismissed. The M&G covered the story in compliance with the South African Press Code.
 
Instead of filing the complaints with the Ombudsman’s Office, Duarte would have been better served by writing a letter to the editor giving his additional explanations or he could have asked the newspaper for space to write an article setting out his side of the story.
 
Sanction
 
The M&G to publish an appropriate apology explaining that the Duartes were in fact divorced in 2001.
 
Appeal
 
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lays down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal.