Disbarred US lawyer given top legal job at UCT

Numerous allegations of misconduct against new deputy-registrar.

A senior official with legal responsibilities at the University of Cape Town had been suspended from the practice of law in the United States for eighteen months before taking up his job at the university. Dr Paul Ngobeni took up the position of deputy registrar (legal services and secretariat) at UCT in September this year. He was suspended from legal practice in Connecticut in late 2005, and continues to face a series of misconduct and criminal charges in that state.

Ngobeni left South Africa on a scholarship to study in the United States in 1982. A graduate of New York University he was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1989 and ran a private law practice in that state from 1996 to 2006. He moved back to South Africa in August this year and took up his position at UCT the following month.

Ngobeni has been tipped to take over the position of registrar once the current incumbent, Hugh Amoore, retires. The responsibilities of the registrar include acting as secretary to the council, senate and convocation. He is also in charge of academic administration and legal issues across the university.

In his current position Ngobeni is responsible for providing legal advice to the university on a range of matters, managing litigation for the university, and ensuring legal compliance of proposed sexual harassment policies. He is also responsible for student discipline and ensuring due process is followed for students, and others, accused of misconduct.

Ngobeni was indefinitely suspended from the practice of law in Connecticut in December 2005 by Judge Vanessa Bryant after he failed to appear for a presentment hearing. His licence to practise law was subsequently suspended in Massachusetts, and he was also barred from practicing law in federal courts in April 2006.

In May and June 2006 he failed to appear before a series of grievance panel hearings in Connecticut, which found that he had engaged in "unethical conduct" and violated the rules of professional conduct. These related mainly, but not exclusively, to his alleged failure to communicate with clients or pursue their cases with the necessary diligence. The grievance panel recommended that he be presented to the superior court.

In October 2006 the Connecticut Law Tribune reported that Ngobeni had been arrested earlier that month on charges of forgery and larceny stemming from the work he did on immigration matters. The criminal case is currently pending in the superior court in Danielson, Connecticut. Ngobeni has brought a motion to dismiss the charges, and a ruling is expected soon on the matter. Ngobeni told Politicsweb that he was confident that the charges would be dismissed.

In June 2007 Patricia King, from the office of the chief disciplinary council, brought a presentment to the superior court in Hartford, Connecticut, on seventeen counts arising from various grievance committee hearings. On October 17 this year Judge Graham of the Superior Court issued a default judgment (in absentia) against Ngobeni. The order disbarred Ngobeni for thirteen years. It also set various conditions for his reinstatement. These include paying a total of $28,050 in restitution on ten of the counts.

Ngobeni said that he was bringing a motion to have the decision set aside and the presentment complaint dismissed as well. In his motion he contested the court's jurisdiction as well as the merits of the allegations made against him.

Last week Ngobeni entered into the debate around the secret payments received by Judge John Hlophe from Oasis, and the propriety of the decision by the Judicial Service Commission - the body responsible for disciplining judges - not to institute a formal inquiry into the matter.

In an article for the Cape Times on Wednesday (October 17) he defended Hlophe from his critics at the Cape bar and UCT law faculty. He claimed that Hlophe was "factually innocent" and calls for his resignation stemmed from "mean-spirited ulterior motives." He wrote:

"Hlophe's racist detractors are hell-bent on ignoring legal principles in their rush to lynch him. They would have gladly made very sophisticated arguments in his defence if Hlophe were white. The JSC has properly concluded that Hlophe's ethical lapses do not warrant further investigation or a formal hearing."