‘A good man’s reputation has been ruined. His life has been ruined for nonsense’

Moneyweb editor Ryk van Niekerk talks to the Bobroffs’ lawyer Richard Spoor and the NPA’s Suna de Villiers on the latest developments in the case.

Father and son personal injury lawyers Ronald and Darren Bobroff fled South Africa in 2016 after the Hawks issued warrants for their arrest after several courts ruled that they had overcharged multiple clients when claiming compensation from the Road Accident Fund.

Many of these clients were severely injured and vulnerable victims of road accidents.

A forensic investigation of the firm’s books by the Law Society of the Northern Provinces also found significant financial irregularities, including tax evasion, and instances of clients being overcharged. It also found that a cheque made out to a victim was deposited into Darren Bobroff’s bank account.

Numerous former clients approached the courts to demand the repayment of the overcharged amounts, and the Bobroffs settled these claims out of court.

A year after the Bobroffs fled to Australia, the Israeli government froze around R103 million in Israeli bank accounts, which was ostensibly the proceeds of the overcharged South African clients.

The South African High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that only R95 million of the money was deemed the proceeds of crime. The South African High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal later ruled it should be forfeited to the state.

The Bobroffs even unsuccessfully petitioned the Constitutional Court to appeal against the SCA judgment.

However, while these legal processes were ongoing in South Africa, the Bobroffs reached a secret settlement with Israeli authorities to dodge criminal prosecution. In terms of the settlement agreement, the Bobroffs forfeited around R70 million to the State of Israel and kept the balance of about R25 million.

Read:
‘The Bobroffs are broke and unhappy’ – Spoor
Secret settlement sees the Bobroffs dodge criminal prosecution

In this podcast, I speak to attorney Richard Spoor who represents the Bobroffs in South Africa.

I also talk to Advocate Suna de Villiers of the Asset Forfeiture Unit regarding the agreement the Bobroffs reached with the Israelis.

The NPA wasn’t available for an interview but has previously confirmed to Moneyweb that the settlement does not affect its investigation, the finalisation of the prosecution decision or the preparation of an extradition request.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Richard Spoor joins me now. He is of course a well-known attorney and represents Ronald and Darren Bobroff in South Africa. Richard, thanks for your time. How are the Bobroffs currently doing?

RICHARD SPOOR: Life is very difficult for them. They’ve lost everything that they built up in South Africa. They can’t work as attorneys there, and it’s actually a very depressing, very sad scenario, especially for a man like Ronald. He’s done so much, was such a well-regarded successful attorney and is now finding himself as ostracised from his own community, isolated, alone and enduring significant hardship. It’s very bad. It’s very ugly. It’s very unhappy.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: But it follows many judgments in South Africa against him and his son Darren in various courts. These courts labelled them as being dishonest – but they’ve always proclaimed their innocence of any wrongdoing. So what is their position now, looking back?

RICHARD SPOOR: Look, notwithstanding the order of the Supreme Court of Appeal, the SCA, which has been upheld and which found that they were guilty of theft – not guilty of theft, that their conduct amounted to theft. My view is very strongly that there’s no basis for it. Everything flows from these contingency agreements and the fact that they relied on so-called ‘common-law contingency fee agreements’ at a time when there was uncertainty about the impact and import of the Contingency Fees Act.

What the SCA judgment is based on really is it says that because they relied on common-law fee agreements, they had overcharged their clients and, by not repaying the money to their clients and keeping that money they were guilty of theft. Now that’s a tenuous argument at best. I don’t know how it’s been sustained. I think in part their having left the country, fled the country – really Ronald Bobroff fled the country out of fear that he would be arrested – I think that has weakened their case considerably, and we see this judgment stand. But I have very little doubt in my mind that there’s no basis whatsoever for any criminal charges against Ronald Bobroff.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: But yet, since 2014, there have been numerous former clients who instituted legal action against Ronald and Darren Bobroff regarding overreaching and the Bobroffs actually settled on those cases.

RICHARD SPOOR: Well, on the basis that the contingency fee agreements that they had entered into, whereby a flat fee was agreed of, say, 25%, that amounted to an overreach because it wasn’t in compliance with the provisions of the Contingency Fees Act, which says twice your ordinary fee to a maximum of 25%, and the so-called common-law agreements were struck down. So people were able to recover the difference between their ordinary attorney-client costs and the costs that were taxed by the Bobroffs. So yes, they were able to recover money. But it’s based strictly on an interpretation of the act and the validity of the agreements that were entered into. The fact is thousands of clients by dozens and dozens of attorneys were charged, on exactly the same basis, to a flat fee of 25%. It’s effectively that that was declared to be unlawful, and therefore they were obliged to repay funds.

There’s not a suggestion that they charged more than they were entitled to charge in terms of the agreements that they’d entered into with their clients, and which had been standard practice in this country for decades – many, many decades. So yes, it’s a civil wrong; it’s not a crime.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: But why do you think the courts then ruled in the way they did?

RICHARD SPOOR: Well, on the civil matters, it’s very straightforward. The agreements were invalid, and therefore the clients were entitled to recover the difference from what they should have paid versus what they had paid under the provisions of the agreements that were set aside. But these are civil wrongs, they’re not criminal wrongs, and there’s a fundamental difference.

If you believe you’ve been overcharged, or the agreement in terms of which you were charged is invalid, you can set it aside and recover those monies. That’s a simple, common-law thing. But the Bobroffs were certainly not unique, and there’s no evidence whatsoever of any criminal wrongdoing.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Let’s talk about after the Bobroffs fled to Australia. The Israeli government seized just over R100 million in Israel on money-laundering suspicions, and later found that R95 million of that was the proceeds of crime. That R95 million became really contentious. Even in South Africa it was ruled by the SCA that that money was the proceeds of crime and should be forfeited to the state.

And then the Bobroffs settled with the Israeli government and two-thirds of the money went to the Israeli government, and they kept the other third. Just put that whole agreement in context for us.

RICHARD SPOOR: Over a career of more than 30 years, Ronald Bobroff had saved money and invested in Israel. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Zionist ideals and the Israeli state, and he felt it was his patriotic duty to invest that money there. On the advice and the assistance of some of the Israeli banks, his money was moved there. There is no argument that it was done without the authority of the Reserve Bank, it was after-tax money. But it was moved without the permission of the Reserve Bank and the Reserve Bank had imposed penalties on the transfer of that money without Reserve Bank permission.

Now it’s that money, Ronald Bobroff’s money accumulated over 30 years in a very successful practice, that the Asset Forfeiture Unit first seized, and then was finally declared forfeit to the South African state.

The South Africans went to Israel and engaged with their Israeli counterparts and said, ooh, we want this money back; we’ve got an order. The Israelis saw this as a golden opportunity to grab the money for themselves. They then notified the Bobroffs that they were going to apply for the extradition of Ronald Bobroff on the basis of money laundering.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: You mean Darren?

RICHARD SPOOR: Darren, yeah. Based entirely on the South African court papers and the allegations that were made here, conjured up, using the South African documentation and court records and the approaches from the South African authorities to seize the opportunity to grab the money for themselves. They then said: ‘We’re going to apply for the extradition of Darren Bobroff. We’re going to have him arrested, held pending extradition. Then we are going to extradite him to Israel and we are going to hold him here in custody until the trial is over – unless you agree to forfeit this money to us, in which event we’ll leave you alone.’ And that’s what happened.

So basically the South Africans tipped off the Israelis, the Israelis jumped at the opportunity and extorted the money out of the Bobroffs. It’s disgraceful behaviour. It’s opportunistic in the extreme and the South Africans played right into it. It’s a farce, frankly. The South Africans lost their money because they were stupid and incompetent in the way they dealt with the matter.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: But why would the Bobroffs settle if they are innocent?

RICHARD SPOOR: Because Darren Bobroff would’ve been arrested and detained and held in custody for months. It’s extortion. ‘We’re going to have you arrested. We’re going to have you locked up. We’re going to  have you deported to Israel. We’re going to hold you in custody unless you agree to pay us this money’ – which had already been attached by the South Africans. So what are you going to do?

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Why didn’t the Bobroffs disclose the settlement during the Constitutional Court case?

RICHARD SPOOR: It wasn’t relevant. I mean, the South African authorities are in touch with the Israelis and they’ve been dealing among themselves. We’re just bystanders in that process.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: But surely that agreement made the whole application to the Constitutional Court moot?

RICHARD SPOOR: Well, it doesn’t at all, because the fact of the matter is that there’s an order saying that they have committed theft by not repaying monies to their clients. The damage is done. I mean, the money is important, but the most important thing is the harm that’s been done to their reputations by what I persist in saying is a really bad finding.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: So you just regarded it as being irrelevant, and you thought the responsibility would’ve been on the NPA to disclose it?

RICHARD SPOOR: No, there are two issues. One, the NPA is engaged with the Israeli authorities. They brought them into it. They’re collaborating with them. They’re plotting together. It’s their business. They’re acutely aware of it. That is the first point.

The second point is the appeal is about the Bobroffs’ reputation and their standing –  and it’s not just about the money. It’s about a finding that they have benefited from the proceeds of crime, and it’s the wrongness of that decision that was being taken under appeal.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: In the court papers submitted as part of the case before the Constitutional Court it’s indicated that the Bobroffs wish to take that settlement on review. Where is that review process currently? Where does it stand?

RICHARD SPOOR: I’m not entirely sure. I know it’s ongoing, but the Israeli system is archaic – at least arcane and complex and difficult. So there are proceedings to set it aside on the basis that this money was extorted. But I don’t know how far that has progressed.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: The money was, as you’ve said, taken out of South Africa illegally. The Reserve Bank fined the Bobroffs around $600 000. Has that fine been paid?

RICHARD SPOOR: They agreed to pay the fine but, because their monies were seized by the South African authorities, they weren’t able to pay it.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: And that remains the case today?

RICHARD SPOOR: Yeah. Well, how are they going to pay it? They don’t have any money. They have nothing left between them. The South Africans facilitated the Israeli seizure of their savings, and those have been grabbed and there’s nothing left. They’re impoverished, they’re broke. They have nothing.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Has the NPA been in contact with the Bobroffs since 2016, when they fled the country?

RICHARD SPOOR: No, they haven’t. They haven’t disclosed any charges. They’ve refused to disclose any charges. And the reason they haven’t done anything is because they have nothing. They don’t have a case against the Bobroffs. They don’t have it. It’s a farce, it’s a joke. There is no valid criminal case that could be made against the Bobroffs. There is no case.

The finances of that company, which was placed under administration, have been audited. It’s been years. There is no shortfall in the trust accounts. There are no liabilities. There’s no evidence of any impropriety in the books of account of that firm. There’s nothing there. There is no basis for any criminal charges. We would love the state to disclose that they have a case. We’ve in fact said: ‘Listen, disclose what you’ve got. Tell us what you’ve got. Give us an undertaking that you won’t hold them in custody, which is the real threat. Ronald Bobroff is 78 years old and not in good health. Allow him to come back, and we are happy to deal with the charges.’ But they won’t do anything. They’ll just bluster and perform. But there is nothing, there is no case against the Bobroffs. They’ve been railroaded and it’s a tragedy.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: The Law Society of the Northern Provinces had an independent forensic audit done on the Bobroff’s books, and they found significant irregularities.

RICHARD SPOOR: No, they didn’t. Speak to the administrator of their trust account. There’s nothing there. We have the reports. There is nothing.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: I recall there’s just one incident where a cheque made out to Philippe Bombo …

RICHARD SPOOR: No, it didn’t…

RYK VAN NIEKERK: …ended up in in Ronald Bobroff’s bank account.

RICHARD SPOOR: No, it didn’t. It ended up in Darren Bobroff’s account. That is the only incident that they can allude to that has been dealt with. That is allegedly the Bobroffs’ claim. It was by accident, it was a mistake. That is it. That is the sum total of the case against the Bobroffs. And it doesn’t even impact on Ronald at all.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: During previous correspondence between us, you said the Bobroffs are willing to come back to South Africa and stand trial on the condition that they are not arrested in South Africa.

RICHARD SPOOR: No, they can be arrested. They just mustn’t be held in custody. You can summon somebody to appear in court, disclose the charges will come back, but the kind of justice they’ve experienced here and the kind of way they’ve been demonised doesn’t really encourage any kind of sense of confidence. So what we had liked to see is: what are the charges that you wish to put? We are happy to come back and face them. But you must agree that, when we return, you’re not going to lock us up and put us in ‘Sun City’, the prison south of Johannesburg. I mean, that’s a fair enough request and, if the NPA has a case, well, disclose it, tell us what the case is, and we’ll come back. Show the public, tell us where are these charges, what are these charges? How many years is it? You haven’t seen a thing. Can you tell me what the charges are? You’ve been involved in this thing for years and years. What are the charges? What do they look like? There is no charge. It’s rubbish. We’re dealing with a posturing incompetent NPA, that’s it. Every now and again, the politicians ask how the Bobroffs are  doing and what you are doing, and you hear all this talk – but no information, no disclosure, no action.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: And that is after a period of more than five years when …

RICHARD SPOOR: I think it’s, yeah, considerably more than that. They left in about 2016. I mean, it’s pathetic. It’s rubbish, and that’s why I’m willing to defend the Bobroffs, because it’s clear to me they’ve been railroaded. A huge injustice has been done to them and it’s just manifestly unjust and unfair what’s happened.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: And there has been no interaction between yourself and the NPA as to being their legal representative yet?

RICHARD SPOOR: I haven’t had any dealings with them. I’m not even sure who to deal with. But their previous attorneys have dealt with them at length. I don’t even know who’s responsible. Everything they do is top secret, hush-hush. You cannot deal with them, you cannot get a case number. You cannot speak to an investigating officer. You cannot speak to anybody in the NPA who does it.

I have requested some parliamentarians before, [to] whom submissions and statements have been made, to furnish me with information. But even that seems to be unavailable. So no, there is no information. There’s no openness, there’s no transparency. And the reason, as far as I’m concerned, is simply because they have nothing. A good man’s reputation has been ruined. His life has been ruined for nonsense.

You know as well as I do that Bobroff made some very influential enemies. The medical aid societies had an objection to his challenges to the way that they were recovering their medical costs from road accident victims, which  made him unpopular – and all this litigation was bankrolled by Discovery. You know Discovery well, you and people associated with this programme who worked with those people in ENSafrica, the lawyers for Discovery. You know what’s gone down here. It been an orchestrated deliberate campaign, and it’s unjustified and it’s wrong.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Why do you think Discovery took those steps?

RICHARD SPOOR: They got really peeved off with Ronald Bobroff. The reason they got peeved off with Ronald Bobroff is because he objected to the methods that they were using to recover their road accident expenses from their hospital expenses that they’d paid to insured members who were involved in road accidents. What he said is that they were using improper methods to secure agreements from the accident victims, that they could recover their full medical outlay out of any Road Accident Fund settlement. They didn’t contribute to the recovery of that money, they didn’t contribute towards the legal costs and, where settlements had to be discounted, say for shortcomings in the merits that required discounting, Discovery took its full outlay, leaving many of these people without any general damages and basically severely under compensated.

The stories were, as I understand, that they were sending people to these people while they were in hospital and saying to them, ‘Sign this document, and if you don’t we are not going to pay for your medical costs’. Then they signed an agreement that was frankly oppressive. That’s what I understand they objected to.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Was that only directed at the Bobroff firm, or was that an industry practice?

RICHARD SPOOR: No, I’m sure it wasn’t just directed at the Bobroffs, but certainly they funded and bankrolled the litigation against the Bobroffs. That much is clear.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Are you aware of any extradition application or process being instituted by the NPA?

RICHARD SPOOR: Nope. Nothing.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Richard, thanks so much for your time and insights.  I really appreciate the time.

I have on the line now Advocate Suna de Villiers. She is from the Asset Forfeiture Unit within the NPA. Suna, thanks so much for joining me. Can you just give us maybe a chronology of the Asset Forfeiture Unit’s actions against the Bobroffs? When did you get involved?

SUNA DE VILLIERS: Good day, Ryk, to you and to your listeners. Yes, we got involved in the matter a couple of years ago when we were approached by the Israeli government, which brought to our attention that they had frozen money in two accounts, and that these monies were held in the names of Darren and Ronald Bobroff.

We were then informed that the Israeli government did an open-source search. They saw that the Bobroffs [were] linked with criminal activities in South Africa and they made us aware about these monies in those two accounts. We then filed a subsequent application to freeze the money in those overseas accounts. That’s how we became involved.

I must honestly say that if we had not been approached by the Israeli government we would not have known about the money in Israel.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: [What] was the relationship then between Israel and the South African authorities?

SUNA DE VILLIERS: Very good. Look, crime people need to take hands when they fight crime. All countries have an obligation to work together to inform other countries about possible proceeds of crime in their country. So the relationship was good. There’s no problem. We received documents, spoke on a regular basis, and based on that information we brought our application.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Then the NPA pursued legal avenues in South Africa, which ended up in the SCA proclaiming that the money was the proceeds of crime and should be forfeited to the state. The Bobroffs then appealed to the Constitutional Court, which denied them leave to appeal against the SCA decision, which in fact meant that the money should be paid back to South Africa. But it wasn’t.

It seems as if the Bobroffs then signed or reached an agreement or a settlement with the Israeli government through which the Israelis took the majority of the money. It was forfeited to the Israeli state without any correspondence or consultation with the South African authorities. When did you become aware of the settlement?

SUNA DE VILLIERS: I became aware of the settlement early in 2021, when we received a letter informing us that the monies were paid back to them after an agreement was reached. We were then asked to respond on certain issues. And naturally, you can imagine, we just wanted a high-profile matter in the SCA before a full bench. Then we were informed that there was no money to repatriate. So of course that was devastating news to us. We were not informed of any discussions.

By saying that, I don’t say that there weren’t any discussions possibly with other state departments, but with the NPA or with the Asset Forfeiture Unit there were no discussions.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: The Israelis wrote a letter to the NPA, informing them of the seizure. Did they in any way disclose or justify their action?

SUNA DE VILLIERS: Well, one of the reasons presented is that each country has its own jurisdictional requirements, and certain allegations need to be proved in every country. According to them, some of those requirements were not met by the South African authorities. We disagree on that and we are still in negotiations with them or in discussions with them surrounding those issues. That was the main reason that was given.

So it’s not the issue of ‘You can freeze money here, bring an application and you freeze the money and then enforce it oversees’. There are certain further requirements that have to be met. That’s the Israeli case.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: I’ve spoken to Richard Spoor, the Bobroffs’ legal representative in South Africa. He said what happened was an absolute disgrace. He says the Israeli authorities were very, very opportunistic and that they used the information supplied to them by the NPA and the Asset Forfeiture Unit to institute a criminal case against the Bobroffs, and that the Bobroffs only reached the settlement with the Israeli government to keep Darren Bobroff out of jail for a few months while the case was being heard. He said it was total opportunism on this part of the Israelis. Do you agree with that?

SUNA DE VILLIERS: Well, I’ll say in response what someone else told me a few years ago, that ‘You’re entitled to your wrong opinion’. [Chuckling] Now this might not be the right term for that.

Look, my impression was never that the Israelis were opportunistic. I thought that their case was very well researched. They’ve done a lot of investigation. I do know that they did come to South Africa to sort out certain issues, and I do believe that the case that they presented there was strong and based on evidence in their possession. I think the mere fact that Mr Bobroff was willing to reach a deal in order to keep himself out of jail shows what kind of evidence the Israelis have.

So, no, I do not think the Israelis opportunistic; I don’t think any process in South Africa is opportunistic. The evidence speaks for itself and the SCA confirms that.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: So there are currently negotiations on the go with the Israeli government to at least have some of that money being repatriated to South Africa?

SUNA DE VILLIERS: Yes. I cannot, of course, divulge the details thereof, but I can assure you that we’re not giving up on it.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Suna, thank you so much for your time.

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