Tigon trial: ‘Horns and halos’ may put Bennett behind bars

The conduct of Gary Porritt and Sue Bennett, the accused in the Tigon trial, has deteriorated to such an extent that they should be summarily found guilty of contempt of court and given custodial sentences, according to the prosecuting team.

The state is accusing Porritt, former CEO of then JSE-listed financial services group Tigon, and Bennett, a former director of the group, of acting with a common purpose to target Judge Brian Spilg who has been presiding over the trial since 2016 and thereby disrupting the proceedings.

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Read: Tigon trial: Porritt and Bennett stuck with same judge

If the state succeeds with this application, Bennett, who is currently being warned at the end of each court sitting to attend the next court date, will go to jail, and Porritt will be transferred from the section for awaiting trial prisoners, where he has been held since 2017, to that for convicted prisoners.

Porritt and Bennett, both in their early 70s, are standing trial on more than 3 000 charges of fraud, racketeering and contraventions of the Income Tax Act and the Prevention of Organised Crime Act. The charges relate to the collapse of Tigon around 2002.

According to the state, they regularly insult Judge Spilg, shout at him, and ignore his orders and directives.

This impacts the state’s ability to present its case effectively and unnecessarily delays proceedings.

“To just get accused number one [Porritt] to sit down when requested to do so is almost an impossible task,” lead prosecutor Advocate Etienne Coetzee recently told the court.

The accused have no legal representation in court after refusing assistance from Legal Aid SA. They argued that the issues before court are too complex for the lawyers they would be provided with and they don’t have money to appoint their own legal teams.

As unrepresented lay persons, they have some leeway regarding the strict rules and prescribed procedures of court, and Judge Spilg has in the past taken this status of theirs into account when assessing their conduct.

Something new to complain about …

Porritt, who has been behind bars since 2017 when he failed to attend court, was recently moved from Johannesburg Prison to the Kgoši Mampuru Correctional Centre in Pretoria – and the trial has been moved to the High Court in Pretoria.

Both accused are currently trying to appeal Spilg’s ruling to this effect.

Since the start of the trial, it has been marked by delays and disruptions. Ruling on one of Porritt’s failed bail applications, the late judge Ramarumo Monama found that Porritt was acting like former president Jacob Zuma by delaying proceedings through numerous appeals and applications “even when there is manifestly no prospect [of success]”. He called it the “Zuma-principle”.

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When Porritt was arrested and brought to court in 2017 he attended the hearing while lying on his back, saying he was too sick to sit.

Gary Porritt pictured at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria. Image: Elizabeth Sejake/Rapport

The state then obtained video footage of Porritt walking around comfortably later the same day while waiting at the hospital where he had been sent for examination.

Conduct

The state has now presented eight examples from court transcripts of the conduct of the two accused, which it contends constitute contempt of court.

These include:

25 January 2022 Porritt told Spilg: “I have made it quite clear that I do not regard you as a fit and proper person to grace to bench.” Bennett supported this statement.

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11 March 2022

Source: Court documents

31 May 2022 Bennett responded to a ruling by Spilg by accusing him of inventing things. Porritt agreed with her. “This is the further manifestation of the bias oozing out of every pore!” he added.

16 January 2023 After one of Porritt’s outbursts, Spilg said: “Okay, Mr Porritt, your eyes are bulging, you are pointing fingers at me and you are shouting. Please refrain from that. I am not going to ask you again.”

After another ruling by Spilg, Bennett said: “My Lord, I sat for a day and a half listening to … dishonest, fictitious … [this] is clearly transparently an attempt to create a golden halo around your head and horns on Mr Porritt and myself.”

And “you create – you invent things that are material omissions and simply to create a difference between your halo and our horns – and it has in fact been written for the form and I intend to complain to the JSC [Judicial Service Commission] on this judgment and I am quite happy to leave the court as it is a load of rubbish that you are coming up with”.

No excuse for contempt

According to Coetzee, Spilg cannot make a ruling in court without being interrupted or insulted. He said it doesn’t matter how unhappy or upset one is with a ruling.

“Even if you believed it is wrong, even if it is wrong, your remedy is not to act with contempt towards the court. Your remedy is an appeal of review application.”

Even arguing that the conduct happened ‘in the heat of the moment’ would not be valid, said Coetzee.

That is not a valid defence for accused who “interrupt, insult, harass, intimidate a judge and prevent him from executing his judicial functions”.

“It doesn’t matter how angry you are. Irrespective of how aggrieved you feel.”

Porritt and Bennett have indicated that they will oppose the state’s application. They want to raise preliminary points, including that the prosecution does not have the required legal standing to bring such an application. Spilg ruled that these points will be argued with their main response.

The contempt hearing has been interrupted by the attempts by Porritt and Bennett to appeal Spilg’s order to move Porritt and the trial to Pretoria, and will proceed at a later date.

Read Moneyweb’s full coverage of the Tigon case here.

William Murphy

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