A $37 million (R544 million) restitution order placed on convicted Hout Bay Fishing Industries owner Arnold Bengis has been reduced to $7.1 million (R103 million) by an American court.
The “significant” reduction has shocked the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), which at one point had sought restitution of $100 million (R1.4 billion).
Last week, a New York prosecutor conceded that recovering the full amount was “unlikely”- a concession that federal Judge Lewis Kaplan agreed with.
Between 1987 and 2001, Bengis, 82, and his co-conspirators, his son, David, and his former business partner, Jeffrey Noll, were involved in poaching huge quantities of rock lobster and then exporting it illegally to America.
In 2004, Bengis was sentenced by a New York federal court to 46 months in jail, his son to one year and Noll to 30 months. They were all released after serving their terms.
However, in July last year, the same court ordered that Bengis, who now lives in Israel, pay South Africa $37 million.
This amount replaced the
$22.5 million Bengis had agreed to pay the country in 2004.
Judge Kaplan found that he had only paid $1.25 million and the rest was “placed out of the reach of the US”.
One of the places he had allegedly stashed the money was the English Channel island of Jersey.
Judge Kaplan also sentenced him to 11 more months in prison, which Bengis has appealed. South Africa had wanted a restitution order of $100 million, but accepted the amount set down by Judge Kaplan.
But on Tuesday October 2, Law360, a legal news media company, reported that Judge Kaplan had given a settlement of $7 million his “blessing”.
“Under the terms of the deal as described by the judge, trusts linked to the Bengis family will pay $7.5 million to authorities on the English Channel island of Jersey. Of that, $7.1 million will flow to the US Department of Justice, which is planning to send the whole sum to South Africa, the court-recognised victim of Bengis’s crime,” Law360 said.
According the the publication, Alexander Wilson, an assistant US attorney, said the expectation was that once South Africa received the
$7.1 million, it would tell the court it was not seeking any more restitution.
DAFF spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana said:“Weare disappointed by this significant reduction. Arnold Bengis improperly benefited hugely on our marine species through years of poaching, thereby robbing South Africa, a third world country, of billions of rand.
“He (Bengis) might be in a frail condition now, but that should not be a reduction of the untold crimes and stealing from this country for which
he must pay a price.
“We need a significant money repatriated to help our struggling coastal communities and small scale fisheries to fend for themselves in this country. This is a social justice matter more than anything.”
Donovan van der Heyden, a Hout Bay fishers’ representative, was “appalled” at the reduced figure.
“This is actually beyond sad. My concern is how the South African government is going to respond to this. Where is the rest of the revenue? Is it Bengis’s family who is going to
benefit? This is not right,” he said.