South Africa | German prosecutors set to announce charges against former top Steinhoff executives

German prosecutors are set to make an announcement about their multiyear probe into accounting fraud at Steinhoff this week, which will include charges against three former top officials at the global furniture and household goods company.

The criminal probe into Steinhoff has been running since 2015, when the furniture and household goods conglomerate moved its primary listing from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

It is separate from a probe taking place in South Africa that is being lead by the Hawks. Both probes are understood to be focusing on balance sheet manipulation, although investigators in Europe and South Africa have been playing their cards close to their chests.

This comes after Manager Magazine, a leading financial news publication, reported on Tuesday that the public prosecutor's office in Oldenburg, a city in the state of Lower Saxony, had brought charges against three people closely connected to the Steinhoff Group, as well as one additional person. Oldenburg is near the town of Westerstede, where Steinhoff was founded.

The charges, according to the publication, relate to balance sheet manipulation, which can lead to a maximum sentence of up to three years imprisonment.

While the magazine did not name the three people who had been charged, it noted that the group's former CEO Markus Jooste, and its former finance chief for Europe, Dirk Schreiber, had been "in the sights of investigators" for some time, without citing sources.

Martin Rüppell, chief public prosecutor and press officer at the Oldenburg public prosecutor's office, said in an email that an announcement relating to the Steinhoff probe would be made on Thursday, without providing further details.

Jooste's legal representative in Germany, Bernd Groß, is quoted in the manager magazine article as saying said he was confident he would be able to resist the charges. Groß did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Fin24. 

While Jooste has been keeping a low profile since resigning from his position, he in 2018 denied any wrongdoing related to Steinhoff when he appeared before Parliament.  His lawyer, Callie Albertyn, previously told Fin24 that his client does not intend to comment. 

A Steinhoff spokesperson referred Fin24 to a statement by the group's board in its recent annual report, which said the group was co-operating with prosecution authorities and was "eager that those responsible for past failings are brought to book".

Accounting scandal 

Steinhoff's share price plunged in December of 2017 following Jooste's abrupt resignation.

A subsequent PwC probe found that, between 2009 and 2017 a clique of top Steinhoff executives used "fictitious" transactions" to inflate the group's profits and assets by about €6.5 billion.

While Steinhoff views the report as subject to legal privilege and confidential – it did publish an 11-page overview of key findings in March 2019.

The overview did not provide the names of the clique. But at a subsequent Parliamentary briefing, Steinhoff's leadership confirmed that the names included Jooste and Schreiber, together with six other people. 

Steinhoff International Holdings, the group's holding company based in Amsterdam, is now saddled with debt of almost €10 billion and has offered €943 million to litigants to settle lawsuits stemming from the share price debacle.

Manager Magazine is credited with being one of the first publications to report on accounting fraud at Steinhoff back in August 2017, four months before Jooste stepped down.

At the time it reported that German prosecutors were investigating Jooste and some other senior managers at the furniture retailer in connection with suspected accounting fraud.

Steinhoff at the time attempted to downplay the article, stating that the facts were "wrong and misleading".

"The company rejects the allegations of dishonesty contained in the statements. In particular substantial facts and allegation are wrong or misleading," it said at the time. 

But just four months later Jooste abruptly resigned.

For Stefan Wenzel, a German politician who has been asking questions of the probes into Steinhoff, the case has clear similarities to that of Wirecard, the German payments processor which has been declared insolvent. 

"In both cases, investors who trusted the companies were seriously harmed," he told Fin24.

"In both cases, off-balance sheet vehicles were apparently used in tax havens to smuggle money out of the company. In both cases, in my opinion, it is still unclear whether it will be possible to get back the misappropriated funds."

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