A longstanding fight with Vodacom over illegal wireless masts has erupted again

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Nov 9, 2012, 7:47:45 AM11/9/12
Masts, mafias and murders

November 9, 2012

A longstanding fight with the South African company Vodacom (a subsidiary of Vodafone plc) over illegal wireless masts has erupted again, and I have decided to put on record some of the fraudulent activities of this company and its senior executives in this regard.

In this post, I will show direct and sustained links between top Vodacom executives and a prominent lawyer with known close connections with organised crime -- a lawyer who subsequently fled the country after (a) shooting a client dead in his law office, and (b) looting his own trust funds of millions of rands. The whereabouts of this lawyer, one
George Michaelides, are currently unknown.

I am also making public a document that was drawn up to help the prosecuting authorities in South Africa to pursue fraud charges against one Leslie Cohen, an attorney who acted along with George Michaelides for Vodacom in the case of the Anastassiou family, who fought to remove an illegal 20m-high mast that Vodacom erected 11m from their prime property, overlooking Sandton in Johannesburg -- one of the most prosperous suburbs in the whole of Africa.

Michaelides, Cohen and another attorney (of whom more later) were
charged with professional misconduct over their role in this business. The charges of misconduct against all three were "frozen" because there were fraud charges outstanding against Cohen arising from the same affair. What this had to do with the misconduct charges against the other two lawyers is not clear.

In order to facilitate the justice process, I helped draw up the fraud charges against Leslie Cohen, so that the misconduct hearing could go ahead. In the end, the prosecuting authorities decided not to pursue these charges against Cohen. Nonetheless, I feel it is worth revealing the entire complex chronology of this saga in the document prepared for the prosecutors. Legal eagles can take a look and decide for themselves whether there was fraud involved in the way the Anastassious were bullied into selling their home.

This document for the prosecuting authorities details how Vodacom systematically lied to the Anastassiou family, telling them that they had lost all the court cases they had brought to remove the mast. As we shall see, this was a deliberate deception. On the basis of this lie, Vodacom fraudulently persuaded the family to sell their home to the company.

Crucially, Vodacom also persuaded the son, Dino, to sign an agreement -- drawn up by Vodacom, with his father's name printed below the space for signature -- which formally withdrew the family's objection to this mast. The father was suffering from terminal Alzheimer's disease, and was unable to sign for himself. This healthy, competent and gracious gentleman regularly drove his own car and was perfectly functional up to the time the mast went up, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few months after the mast started operating, became completely incapacitated and dependent, and subsequently died from this terrible illness. I have no doubt, all things being even, that he would still be alive if that mast had not been erected.

Dino Anastassiou is adamant that he was browbeaten by Vodacom into signing this agreement over his father's name, and that Vodacom were perfectly aware that the signature was not that of the person named in the document.

As soon as Vodacom had this signed document in hand, they rushed immediately that same afternoon to the Johannesburg City municipality lawyers, to get them to withdraw a case the City was about to bring the very next day in the High Court to get this illegal mast removed.

In their legal papers prepared for court, the City's lawyers said that Vodacom:
"Apparently seeks to justify its said unlawful conduct by stating that it has done so on numerous previous occasions!" (exclamation mark in the original). It is thus clear that the City was aware of many other illegal Vodacom masts, and that Vodacom had made explicit reference to these illegal masts in order to justify the one in contention.

On the basis of this signed agreement, the City of Johannesburg withdrew its case against Vodacom. The City's lawyers have since stated that if they were aware that the signature on the document was not that of George Anastassiou the father, as stated, they would never have withdrawn the case. It is clear that Vodacom was terrified of this case going to court, and the CEO of the company at the time, Alan Knott-Craig, claimed on another occasion that he had personally come from a sickbed to try persuade the Anastassiou family to sell their home, in a meeting in a pizza restaurant. It is obvious that it was a matter of the utmost urgency for the company to make sure this court case never went ahead, even if it meant committing fraud.

Present on the day the family was persuaded to sell their home was Pieter Uys, then COO and later CEO of Vodacom. As CEO, he attended the hearing at the Law Society that arose from these events.

Most interesting on that fateful day at the Anastassiou house was the physical presence of one Dorothy Field, then corporate communications manager for Vodacom, who has since left the company. A strange aspect of this case is that Field previously used to visit this very same house in order to receive beauty treatments, and was a friend of Mrs Teresa Anastassiou, the wife, who ran a beautician business from the custom-designed premises. Mrs Anastassiou asked Field to help in this case; Field replied (and this is confirmed in an affidavit she made) that she would be prepared to help the family, ONCE ALL COURT CASES HAD BEEN FINALISED.

Field's physical presence in the negotiations to buy the house thus confirmed to the family that there were indeed no outstanding court cases, as Vodacom was insisting. As will be seen, this was an outright lie, and the City of Johannesburg had a strong outstanding case against Vodacom regarding this mast. Since this lie on Dorothy Field's part to the family is repeated in an affidavit, it also constitutes perjury.

What is further interesting is that the house was not actually purchased by Vodacom, but rather by a "front" company operated by an employee in the legal firm of George Michaelides, one Maria Christine Fernandes. In the hearing before the Law Society, George Michaelides described Fernandes as "just our secretary". Investigations revealed that she is actually the director of over a dozen companies, including the one that bought the Anastassiou house: Scarlet Ibis Investments 23 (Pty) Ltd. Details (including part of the transcript of the Law Society hearing) can be found here.

This becomes extremely interesting in light of George Michaelides's sudden departure, stealing unknown millions in trust funds (some estimates put the amount stolen at over R100 million). This sudden flight also brought to light extensive connections between Michaelides and a number of known criminals, and in fact the killing committed by Michaelides in his office was just the beginning of a series of murders that occurred within this criminal circle. There have been several more killings since the report referenced here, and I have evidence of an even earlier murder that may have been connected with this. I posted details of this alleged murder here -- see the post marked "Warning: Graphic Content".

We subsequently received information from a reliable source within Vodacom (described as "Source B" in the above post) who informed us that there was a major money-laundering operation being run by Vodacom and Michaelides Attorneys. Front companies owned by the latter were buying properties, using money that Vodacom was writing off as "legal fees". This source produced documents showing other extremely questionable property deals being done through the same channels.

In 2009 I became aware of a "secret" KPMG investigation into wrongdoing at Vodacom involving the then-CEO, Alan Knott-Craig. I phoned KPMG, and was referred to their "Vodacom expert". He denied any knowledge of such an inquiry. I told him that I knew for a fact that there was indeed such an inquiry, and told this "expert" to pass on some of the above information to the relevant investigators, particularly about George Michaelides and the shady front companies he was operating, buying properties on Vodacom's behalf.

Later, when this KPMG inquiry was publicly confirmed, it became apparent that serious evidence of nepotism by Alan Knott-Craig had been uncovered, but it was all quietly hushed up by the Vodacom shareholders who commissioned the inquiry. I am certain that KPMG took no action on my information, even when it became evident that George Michaelides was indeed very crooked.

And we do know for a fact now that George Michaelides was up to no good. The Law Society has seized his files and is trying to unravel the tangled web of criminality in which he was involved. No information has been forthcoming from the Society as to what they have found. But there is no question that top Vodacom executives were deeply involved in extremely questionable business with this man.

Also interesting in this regard is that a third lawyer was also charged with misconduct before the Law Society in the Anastassiou case, one Eleni Christodoulou, who was a senior executive at Vodacom before she suddenly departed. It is now clear that she had been charged with perjury following serious lies she apparently told the competition authorities in South Africa on behalf of Vodacom, and this was why she suddenly left the company.

In the Law Society hearing into George Michaelides, Leslie Cohen and Eleni Christodoulou, Michaelides stated that it was "common knowledge" that his wife was in fact Eleni Christodoulou. This was news to me, but it made certain connections very clear. While the husband, George Michaelides, was given Vodacom money to buy up properties using various front companies, his wife was right at the top of Vodacom's legal services, and until her hasty departure from Vodacom when perjury charges were laid against her, would have been in an excellent position to make sure that any wrongdoing was covered up.

During this long-drawn-out legal saga with the Anastassious, Vodacom used the attorney Leslie Cohen extensively. I just want to put one last comment from Cohen on record.

On the day the Anastassious were bullied into selling their home, much against their wishes, a high-powered delegation, including the Chief Operating Officer, Pieter Uys, senior legal executive Eleni Christodoulou, and the Chief Communications Officer, Dorothy Field, arrived completely unexpectedly at the house, to begin the browbeating. At one point, Dino Anastassiou was outside with Leslie Cohen, while negotiations were proceeding within with the rest of the family. Cohen actually said the following to Dino: "Dino, I want to thank you. I've made a lot of money from you."

This saga shows just how corrupt and venal Vodacom has been since its very inception, and how it deploys its enormous resources to use the legal system to browbeat and crush people who get in its way. It is a very sad indictment of the state of corporate governance and the legal profession in South Africa.

In 2009, Dino Anastassiou made the essence of this information available directly to the CEO of Vodafone, and there is absolutely no way that Vodafone can say they were unaware of allegations of major, systematic illegality with Vodacom's infrastructure. Nor can Vodacom deny its extensive involvement with the now-fugitive lawyer, George Michaelides. How much of Vodacom's money disappeared with him will probably never be known. This is what happens when thieves fall out ...

So: what does Vodafone plc intend to do about allegations of systematic criminality among executives of its subsidiary?

Perhaps Vodafone can begin by looking at the criminal charges I laid against one Jannie van Zyl, one of Vodacom's present executives, dating from when he was CEO of the company iBurst in South Africa. (Incidentally, one of the charges of nepotism that the KPMG report detailed, was Alan Knott-Craig's installation of his son, Alan Knott-Craig Jr, as MD of iBurst, so there was a very close connection between these companies).

Van Zyl's ignominious departure from iBurst saw him return directly to Vodacom, where he was originally employed. Please examine this criminal charge sheet to see what a track record of lies and deceptions this top Vodacom executive has left behind him. These criminal charges stand. Is this the kind of person Vodafone endorses as a senior executive? 

Below, now, is the document we drew up to pursue fraud charges against Leslie Cohen. Again: it must be emphasised that for one reason or another, the prosecuting authorities decided not to follow up on these charges. But the facts below all stand, and you can make up your own mind as to whether Vodacom acted legally and ethically in this case.

Again: this is a terribly complicated case, and I am grateful to anyone who has read this far. But these charges below took us months of painstaking work to draw up, and I do not wish this effort to go to waste. Since there is nothing sub judice here, there is no impediment on my releasing the full background history of the extremely dodgy purchase of the Anastassiou family home by Vodacom -- or rather, by the front company it used, Scarlet Ibis Investments 23.

Informant: Karl Muller
Vodacom fraud allegations.doc
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