* Public Protector pillories agriculture minister
* Graft scandal breaks six months before election
* Minister says criticism of her inaccurate, biased
* President Zuma also under fire for alleged misconduct
By Ed Cropley
PRETORIA, Dec 5 (Reuters) - South Africa's top corruption watchdog called on Thursday for President Jacob Zuma to punish his agriculture minister over "improper" handling of a fisheries patrol contract, the latest scandal to hit his cabinet six months before an election.
In scathing criticism, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela accused Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joematt-Pettersson of reckless conduct that led to a waste of state money and an increase in illegal fishing.
Joematt-Pettersson, who was previously criticised by the watchdog for flying her children and nanny home from holiday in Sweden at taxpayers' expense, also tried to interfere in the investigation into her department, Madonsela said.
"The President is to consider taking disciplinary action against Minister Joematt-Pettersson for her reckless dealing with state money and services, resulting in fruitless and wasteful expenditure," Madonsela told a news conference to announce the release of her findings.
"Her conduct in this regard is improper and constitutes maladministration," Madonsela added.
Joematt-Pettersson's office said it cooperated fully with the investigation but found Madonsela's provisional report to contain "inaccuracies, incorrect information and bias".
"It is unfortunate that the department has not received a copy of the final report," it said in a statement.
Soft-spoken Madonsela has become one of South Africa's most famous faces with her delivery of detailed forensic investigations into widening allegations of corruption at the highest levels of Zuma's government.
With Zuma and his ruling African National Congress (ANC) facing an election next year, the corruption accusations have angered South Africans, many of whom are poor and jobless and feel their lives have not improved since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Madonsela is in the middle of an investigation into a $20 million security upgrade to Zuma's private home at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal that included a swimming pool, cattle enclosure and visitor lounge, according to a newspaper report on the investigation published last month.
She has condemned the leak of the provisional Nkandla report, which triggered a slew of accusations from the ANC that she was playing politics with her office.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Madonsela's separate investigation into the 800 million rand ($77 million) fisheries contract paints a picture of a government ministry going out of its way to help a politically connected 'black economic empowerment' (BEE) company established as part of a push to redress the inequalities left by apartheid.
The contract was initially awarded to Sekunjalo Marine Service Consortium, a subsidiary of BEE vehicle Sekunjalo Investments Ltd. set up by Iqbal Surve, a businessman with self-professed ties to the ANC.
In the tender process, Sekunjalo Marine was awarded top marks by one member of the bid committee even though it had no experience in the marine patrol business, Madonsela found in her report.
Although the contract was subsequently cancelled, Madonsela also questioned how Sekunjalo Marine could win a fisheries patrol contract when its parent also owned Premier Fishing, South Africa's "largest black-controlled fishing company", according to its website.
"It was going to be placed in the position of referee and player," Madonsela said.
Sekunjalo chief executive Khalid Abdulla said Madonsela's report showed his company had done nothing wrong.
"We are completely vindicated of any wrong-doing. It's an internal matter with the department," he told Reuters. ($1 = 10.4325 South African rand) (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Andrew Heavens)