Markus Jooste to go on trial for fraud

Markus Jooste

Former Steinhoff International Holdings Chief Executive Officer Markus Jooste is among four people who will go on trial in Germany next year on charges of accounting fraud.

No date has been set for the start of Jooste’s proceedings, according to a statement by the Oldenburg regional court on Thursday, which didn’t identify any of the people. The case against two former Steinhoff executives, who worked in Germany, is set to begin on May 3, it said.

This is the first time Jooste is set to go on trial. He is alleged to be the architect of the accounting scandal that engulfed retailer Steinhoff in late 2017, though he has denied the allegations.

The company has been battling to survive for almost five years since auditors refused to sign off on its accounts, leading to a dramatic share-price collapse and the start of police and regulatory investigations in both Europe and South Africa.

While German authorities have not yet officially named any of the accused, a person familiar with the investigation previously said Jooste was among four people charged in Germany for accounting crimes. Thursday’s statement referred to him as the CEO of Steinhoff International Holdings until the end of 2017.

Jooste didn’t immediately respond to a message sent outside of office hours to a mobile phone number he was most recently known to use. News24 reported the details of the trial earlier on Thursday.

Jooste, two former Steinhoff executives and a fourth accused were charged last year with balance sheet fraud carried out between July 2011 and January 2015. The case was subsequently split in two off to avoid delays due to the coronavirus pandemic

A litany of inflated profits and asset values later emerged, and the company has been forced to sell off a range of global retail assets to raise funds. It agreed earlier this year to start paying out 1.4 billion euros ($1.46 billion) to investors who lost money.

The charges allege that fake proceeds from bogus transactions were booked at some of the group’s units. The deals made it seem that assets were sold to third parties while they were in fact acquired by other companies close to the group, according to investigators.

Artificial transactions were allegedly used to manipulate balance sheets by more than 1.5 billion euros. Additionally, the value of real estate assets was inflated by 820 million euros, prosecutors have said. While the charges cover a period from July 2011 to January 2015, the court threw out one count dating back to July 2011, saying it is barred by a statute of limitation.

The two German former employees include managing directors of Steinhoff Group companies and are listed as aged 63 and 51. The fourth person is described as a 72-year-old trustee of a company in the British Virgin Islands and is said to have been guilty of aiding and abetting incorrect presentation in balance sheets in four cases.