Two weeks ago, Ben Gurion University of the Negev handed out eight honorary doctorates. There were two Nobel Prize laureates, leading researchers in biology and chemistry - and there was Arnold Maurice Bengis.
He was described in the university announcement as "a businessman in fishing and related industries," and "an active member of the Cape Town Jewish community." Bengis is one of the most important donors to the university. Since 1995 he has donated large sums of money and two major centers, one for entrepreneurship and high tech management and the other for desert aquatic culture.
In his welcoming remarks to Bengis, university president Avishai Braverman said the doctorate was given as "a deep expression of gratitude to a unique businessman who changed the face of the fishing industry in South Africa."
Law enforcement officials in South Africa have a somewhat different view of Bengis' contributions to changing the local fishing industry. Hout Bay, the company Bengis owned and chaired, was at the heart of a scandal that only a year ago the South African press was calling "the most serious corruption scandal in the history of the South African fishing industry."
At the end of the affair, Hout Bay was fined 39 million rand - about $6 million at the time - the highest fine ever imposed on a South African company until then.
Hout Bay, which employed some 500 workers on a fleet of fishing ships was considered the largest fishing company in the Cape Town area and specialized in crabs and other types of protected species that were flown to prestige restaurants in the U.S., Far East and Europe.
To protect overfishing of protected species, the government set quotas - but a 10-month investigation by the South African Justice Ministry's special unit for serious economic crimes found that for years Hout Bay had overfished beyond its quota, and had bribed port inspectors to ignore the oversized hauls. The press in South Africa discovered the case in June 2001 as a result of a raid by the unit, known as the Scorpions, on the company's warehouses in Cape Town port.
According to a plea bargain signed at the end of April 2002 between Bengis, another manager in the company and the prosecution in Cape Town, Bengis confessed in the name of the company to 28 counts of over harvesting of more than 200 tons of crabs and other protected species of fish for an overall value of some 125 million rand. Bengis also admitted his company bribed 11 fishing inspectors to turn a blind eye to the crimes.
Bruce Morrison, the lawyer who ran the probe into the company yesterday told Haaretz the prosecution preferred to reach a plea bargain rather than begin personal prosecution of Bengis, who moved to the U.S. before the case hit the press.
"It's pretty ironic that Bengis, who admitted in the name of Hout Bay to violating laws meant to protect the environment and fishing resources should get an honorary doctorate in Israel," said Morrison.
Bengis said he signed the plea bargain despite believing in his innocence only to avoid embroiling the company in legal fees that might have led to the company's collapse and the firing of 400 workers. Nonetheless, the company collapsed. But Bengis didn't.
He now runs his businesses from New York and is considered a major philanthropist even by South African standards. In a conversation with him by phone this week, Bengis refused to go into the details of the case. "I had a bad experience in South Africa with anti-Semitism and I would prefer to forget it. I invest a lot in Israel and I don't want any damage done as a result of an unfair article."
A Ben Gurion University spokesman said that "when the decision was made to grant the honorary doctorate, in January 29, 2002, the university management did not know about any legal proceedings. Later it turned out the proceedings involved a company that he was involved with and issues that have nothing to do with the university and his personal support for it over many years. Arnold Bengis is a generous Jew who has made a unique contribution to the university over many years."
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