March 28, 2018 / 10:22 AM / in 5 months

UPDATE 2-Auditors PwC looking to complete Steinhoff inquiry by end of year

* Forensic investigation into Steinhoff complex

* Company officials at restructuring meeting in UK

* Elite police unit Hawks says investigating 3 cases (Adds Hawks, subpoena, details)

By Wendell Roelf

CAPE TOWN, March 28 (Reuters) - Auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) hope to finalise a forensic investigation into the affairs of crisis-hit retailer Steinhoff International by the end of the year, a senior investigator said on Wednesday.

Steinhoff, which has more than 40 retail brands that include France’s Conforama and British chain Poundland, is fighting for survival after admitting “accounting irregularities” in December, wiping about 85 percent off its market value and triggering a liquidity crisis.

Louis Strydom, who heads PwC’s African forensic services unit told a joint committee meeting of parliament looking into the Steinhoff scandal, that the auditing firm was dealing with a conglomerate consisting of more than 700 individual entities operating in 32 jurisdictions.

“This is complex, it’s not simple. We are working with a team of people across seven countries in the world,” he said.

“Our aim is, between now and the end of the year, to package this and put it in a box and conclude our investigation,” said Strydom.

Around 3.3 million records, such as emails, have so far been sent for analysis as the contents of laptops and mobile phones are copied by investigators, he said.

Regulators from South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands are combing for clues and possible culpability in the spectacular fall from grace of the sprawling retail empire.

On March 1 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange suspended trading in Steinhoff’s bonds and preference shares after the company failed to submit its annual reports on time.

Steinhoff’s executive officials did not attend parliament on Wednesday and were instead at a strategic meeting in Britain to discuss its restructuring and liquidity, a company lawyer said.

“It has to make crucial decisions in regard to this restructuring, it has to meet with its global and local lenders,” Robert Driman told parliament.

POLICE INQUIRY

The scandal led to the resignation of senior executives including CEO Markus Jooste on Dec. 5 and chairman Christo Wiese, who helped oversee the company’s rapid expansion over almost two decades.

The former CEO has not made a public statement since and could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Jooste sent a letter via his lawyers saying he would not attend the parliamentary inquiry over fears it could prejudice possible criminal investigations against him.

Steinhoff has reported Jooste to South Africa’s elite Hawks police unit over suspected corruption and Jooste would likely be subpoenaed to appear in parliament, the joint committee decided.

Wiese has not been accused of wrongdoing.

On Wednesday, the Hawks said they were investigating three separate strands regarding Steinhoff.

“The DPCI (Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation) is currently engaged in the investigation of three matters regarding the Steinhoff debacle,” major general Alfred Khana, the head of serious commercial crimes division, told the parliamentary inquiry.

He said the Hawks were investigating fraud and allegations of misrepresentation “which would have led to billions of rands” being lost. (Editing by James Macharia and Keith Weir)

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