Scandal-ridden Markus Jooste no-show at German criminal trial

The German trial of Markus Jooste, the former CEO of Steinhoff International Holdings NV, has been put on hold on the first day after Jooste was unable to leave South Africa due to bigger probes and allegations he is facing there. Jooste is accused of accounting manipulations that led to the dramatic collapse of the retailer in 2017, which triggered criminal and regulatory investigations in both Europe and South Africa. The German charges are the first to be examined in a trial over the scandal.

By Karin Matussek and Janice Kew

The German trial of Markus Jooste, former chief executive officer of scandal-ridden retailer Steinhoff International Holdings NV, was halted on day one after he was unable to leave his home country South Africa.

Bernd Gross, Jooste’s lawyer, told the court his client can’t travel because his attorneys keep his passport under an arrangement with South African authorities. He’s facing much bigger probes and allegations there than in Germany, he said.

“We have asked the South African authorities to allow my client to travel, we do everything we can to allow him to attend this trial,” said Gross. “The South African investigations are close to be finalized and are expected to yield an indictment,” making it unlikely Jooste will be allowed to travel. 

Read more: Markus Jooste on trial in Germany next year – SARB also readying criminal case

Steinhoff has been battling to survive for more than five years since auditors refused to sign off on its accounts, prompting Jooste to resign and causing a dramatic share-price collapse as well as criminal and regulatory investigations in both Europe and South Africa. 

The regional court in the German town of Oldenburg will now decide on a request by prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for the 62-year-old Jooste, presiding Judge Christian Weigmann said at the hearing on Tuesday. 

The trial against George Alan Evans, who’s accused of aiding and abetting Jooste, proceeded and prosecutors read the charges in court on Tuesday. While Evans initially rejected the allegations, he then agreed to settle his case by paying €30,000 ($32,925).

The German charges are the first to be examined at a trial over the 2017 demise of the company. The indictments originally covered six counts of accounting manipulations covering the period from 2010 to 2014. 

Read more: Best of 2022: On the record – Markus Jooste’s trustee opens up on SARB’s R4.8bn asset raid

Four of the counts can no longer be prosecuted because a statute of limitation applies. The remaining two counts allege the accounts were inflated by €1.2 billion by booking sham deals.

The German indictment alleges that fake proceeds from bogus transactions were booked at some of the group’s units. The deals made it seem that valuable assets were sold to third parties, while the units were worthless and were acquired by companies held by Evans. Jooste ordered the books to be cooked this way to conceal losses,, according to prosecutors.  

In the German investigation, two managing directors of Steinhoff units have also been charged for accounting crimes. Their trial will start on May 3. Initially Jooste and Evans were indicted alongside them, but the case was subsequently split in two to avoid delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Steinhoff’s roots are in Westerstede, a small town close to Oldenburg in the North of Germany.

Read more: Best of 2022: Shareholder demands forensic on TWK accounts after Jooste’s Steinhoff chum resurfaces as Audit Committee chair

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