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As Corruption Probe in Assam Slows, Questions Are Raised About Official Intentions

The man the BJP once described as a ‘key suspect’ in the Louis Berger case is now a senior minister in its own government.

Senior Assam minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma was once in the Congress, and was accused of playing a key role in the Louis Berger corruption scandal in the state. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Two years ago, on July 21, 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released a booklet at a meeting of party MPs in New Delhi with the title ‘Water Supply Scam 2010 in Goa and Guwahati’.

The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The BJP booklet alleged that Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was the minister in charge of the Guwahati Development Department (GDD) in what was then the Congress government in Assam, was a “key suspect” in the scam related to a Guwahati water supply project which involved services hired from the American multinational construction management company, Louis Berger International Inc.

The provocation for the BJP booklet was a case filed against the company on July 7, 2015 by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Executives from the New Jersey-based company told a US court that they and their consortium partners had – between 1998 and 2010 – paid bribes worth $976,630 to unnamed “officials” in the Assam and Goa governments to corner water management consultancy projects.

Among similar payments made to unnamed “officials” in Indonesia and Kuwait, the amount mentioned by the company as bribes paid in India was the highest. As per US court documents, Louis Berger had paid $210,000 in Indonesia and $71,000 in Kuwait. Though it bribed “officials” in Vietnam too, the total payments involved were not mentioned.

The US DoJ reportedly said Louis Berger would pay $17.1 million as criminal penalty to resolve charges of bribes given to win government contracts in India and the other three countries.

The BJP booklet “quoted generously” from the 11-page chargesheet filed by US prosecutors against the company, claiming that “Louis Berger maintained a detailed diary and account of bribery (made) to Indian officials”. Though the chargesheet mentioned “officials”representing the state governments, noted that an agent of a company had “paid a minister” and didn’t name any individual in particular, the BJP took a public stand against Sarma as he was then the man in charge of theAssam project.

Guwahati Municipal Corporation Development Authority head Dhiren Barua was quoted in the media as saying the authority “was not involved” in the selection of companies and this was done by GDD.” Though Sarma denied the BJP’s charges, Barua said that when Louis Berger was selected as a consultant, “Himanta Biswa Sarma was the GDD minister and Ashish Kumar Bhutani was the GDD secretary. The selection took place between 2008-2009.”

Speaking to reporters after attending the BJP MPs meet in New Delhi in 2015, Sarbananda Sonowal, who then the Union sports and youth affairs minister, wondered why Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi was “silent on the issue” while Goa chief minister and BJP leader Laxminath Parsekar had already demanded a CBI inquiry into the Goa part of the “scam”.

Though by then, the rumour that Sarma had fallen out with Gogoi in a power struggle and had reached out to the BJP was gaining wind, Siddharta Bhattacharyya, who was BJP state president at the time, reportedly said on the same day in New Delhi that his party’s charges against Sarma in the booklet had “literally put an end” to that speculation.

As Sarma’s star rose, probe in Louis Berger case waned

Of course, Sarma joined the BJP barely a month after Bhattacharyya made that claim – on August 29, 2015. Sonowal is chief minister of Assam and Sarma is now a senior minister with multiple portfolios in the state government, including the GDD portfolio where the alleged scam took place. Sarma is widely believed to be “number two” in the state hierarchy. He has also become a key strategist for the BJP as it seeks to politically conquer the entire northeast.

When the BJP won the May 2016 Assam  assembly polls, people in the state assumed the Louis Berger case would be thoroughly probed. Since this was the most high-profile, multi-crore allegation of corruption against the erstwhile Congress government and the BJP had been demanding a CBI probe into it, quick results were expected. Instead, the opposite has happened.

Over the last few months, however, the Assam CID, which is probing the case, has failed thrice to update the Gauhati high court which is overseeing the investigation as part of a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by a social activist, Bhaben Handique.

For inexplicable reasons, a simple video conference that the investigating agency wishes to conduct with the US Department of Justice has been held up for months on end. And approval from the state home department for investigators to pay a visit to Washington DC to collect evidentiary documents on the case, as per the US government’s invitation, has also been hanging fire.

Also, even though on May 9, the prime minister’s office (PMO) forwarded a letter written by petitioner Handique to Modi seeking his “urgent intervention” in the case, action is yet to be taken by the state government to speed up the investigation.

The contrast with Goa

Going back to 2015, on August 7 – just a few days after the BJP released its booklet in New Delhi – the Modi government ordered an inquiry by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) into the Goa leg of the alleged scam. The ED filed a case under Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).

On July 21, coinciding with the BJP’s release of the booklet related to the alleged scam, the Goa crime branch registered an FIR against unknown ministers in the former Congress government and company officials, thus commencing a separate probe.

Former Goa chief minister Digambar Kamat Photo PTI

Former Goa chief minister Digambar Kamat, now being probed by the Enforcement Directorate. Credit: PTI

The ED, together with Goa crime branch, carried out raids on August 15, 2015 at the residences and offices of former Goa chief minister and Congress leader Digambar Kamat, besides his “close friends and business associates”.

Though Guwahati-based media reports then said the ED had also begun looking at the Assam part of the corruption case, nothing has been heard about it from the ED’s Guwahati office. A reliable source in the Guwahati office of the ED recently told The Wire, “As far as I know, ED never pursued the Guwahati part of the case.”

The erstwhile Congress-led Gogoi government, smarting under the BJP’s accusation of corruption prior to the assembly polls, set up a high level inquiry into the allegations under then additional chief secretary Subhash Das, directing him to submit the report soon.

Meanwhile, Handique filed a PIL in the state High Court basing his plea on the statements made by Louis Berger officials in the US court, and seeking a directive to order an investigation into the matter by an independent agency, such as the CBI – something that the BJP, prior to the state assembly polls, sought too.

After Das’s inquiry report was submitted, the state CID registered a case on August 17, 2015 and began probing the allegations.

Since then, N. Rajamarthandan, special superintendent of police (SSP) CID and the main investigating officer for the case, had been periodically presenting himself at the Gauhati high court to update it about the progress of the case.

On April 7, 2017, Rajamarthandan was suspended and thereafter arrested by the state police on the charge of disclosing “classified information” through an RTI reply related to another sensitive probe he was conducting.

Before he was released on ‘default bail’ on June 13 because the Assam Police failed to frame a chargesheet against him within the stipulated period of 60 days, the Sonowal government transferred the case to Rajamarthdan’s junior officer, CID SP Indrani Baruah.

State government drags its feet

Though the Goa leg of the Louis Berger allegations led to prompt action even without the US authorities cooperating with the ED,  scant progress has been seen in the Assam part of the allegations. This, even after the US Department of Justice responded positively to the letter rogatory (LR) sent by the court of the CJM, Kamrup (Metropolitan), seeking its legal assistance in the collection and transfer of evidence.

The CJM issued the LR on May 4, 2016, to which the US DoJ responded on September 26, 2016 and also on October 10, 2016. In the letters, the US authorities agreed to share evidence pertaining to the case and invited the state CID’s investigators to its headquarters in Washington. The US officials also proposed a preliminary discussion over video conferencing with the CID before visiting the US. The state CID submitted copies of those letters to the HC in December last year, informing the court that the US justice department had agreed to cooperate in the investigations.

However, since then, the CID failed to update the high court three times on any progress in the matter.

Meanwhile, as per top sources in Assam Police, the Ministry of Home Affairs (US-legal desk) wrote two “terse” letters to the state CID in February and March expressing unhappiness about the delay in the case. The first letter, the sources said, referred to the delay of three months in sending the proposal to the state home department for the US visit.

The second letter pointed out “a delay by the CID in the request to have the tele-conference by 10-15 days.”

During the time the Assam CID was accused of delay by the MHA through those letters, the ED’s probe in Goa led to Kamat’s assets worth Rs 1.95 crore being attached on March 30.

The ED also attached eight apartments owned by former Congress minister-turned-NCP MLA Churchill Alemao as part of its probe into the case. On April 2, the ED conducted raids on 14 shell companies in Kolkata allegedly involved in the Louis Berger case.

Significantly, after taking over the case, Indrani Baruah, the new investigating officer, updated the government lawyer R.K. Dev Choudhury in a May 3, 2017 affidavit, stating that the CID, on January 16, 2017 (i.e. during Rajamarthandan’s tenure as investigating officer) had sought approval from the state home and political department  to visit the US to collect evidence from the US DoJ.  The letter was addressed to the commissioner and secretary of the department, memo no CID-IV/C.41/2015.

Baruah said, “A request letter has also been sent to Dipak Goswami, director of technical division, NIC state centre, Guwahati, on January 9, 2017 requesting to arrange to host and facilitate VTC (video tele-conference) link for CID officials with the prosecutors of Department of Justice USA.”

Her submission said that a day later, the CID was asked by the NIC to procure the internet protocol address of the video conferencing equipment from where it would be doing the conference. The US officials provided the IP address on January 25.

Baruah’s affidavit said that on March 2, an email was received from the CBI’s International Police Cooperation Cell (IPPC), New Delhi, informing the CID that it had conveyed the contact details of Assam Police to the US justice department on February 22.

However, without furnishing any reason, her affidavit noted that the IPPC had also said, “It will take some time to receive [a] response from the US department”, and added: “Meanwhile, the CID directly contacted the US Department of Justice through an email on March 23, 2017” (during Rajamarthandan’s tenure as investigating officer) and requested it to provide the required information “at the earliest”.

Though her affidavit is dated May 3, intriguingly, it says, “A reminder was also sent to the US on May 22, 2017.” What remains unanswered here, apart from the anomaly in the date mentioned, is why the US authorities would not respond to the CID’s emails after inviting a team from the state investigating agency to share evidence. Also, why had the CID changed its January 6 stance, when it informed the court through another affidavit (by then CID SSP Rajamarthandan) that the US Department of Justice has agreed to cooperate with investigations and engage in video conferencing? Rajamarthandan told the HC then that the CID “is in touch with CBI’s IPCC” to facilitate the video conference with the US authorities.

A news report quoting sources in the state government published in the Assam Tribune daily on April 29 also confirmed that the state government was sending a team to the US.

“However, the date for sending the team is yet to be finalised as necessary formalities have to be completed before that,” the report said.

‘Sarma is being protected’

Akhil Gogoi. Credit: PTI

Krishan Mukti Sangram Samiti leader Akhil Gogoi. Credit: PTI

Talking about the proposed visit, top sources in the department told The Wire, “Besides the investigating officer Rajamarthandan and CID inspector general Surendra Kumar, a deputy superintendent of police was to travel to the US to procure the evidence and were awaiting approval from the home department when Rajamarthandan was suspended and thereafter arrested.”

On May 26, following accusations by Krishan Mukti Sangram Samiti leader Akhil Gogoi at a press meet in Guwahati that the BJP-led government is “safeguarding its cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma by delaying investigation into the Louis Berger case,” and appointing Indrani Baruah as the investigating officer whom he claimed “is close to Himanta as per our information”, the Sonowal government announced the appointment of a new investigating officer – Sonitpur SP P. P. Singh.

However, when contacted on July 13 for an update on the case, Singh told The Wire, “I am still the SP, Sonitpur, I have not taken charge of the case.” He said he didn’t know when he would take over the case.

The Wire tried to contact commissioner and secretary, home and political department, to enquire into the status of the CID’s proposal to visit the US to collect evidence in the case (as mentioned in the May 3, 2017 affidavit) but failed to make any headway.

Meanwhile, the status of the petitioner’s letter to PM Modi seeking his “urgent intervention” in the case – which was forwarded by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on May 6 to the state home department – is yet to be known.

Handique told The Wire, “After getting to know that the PMO has forwarded the letter to the chief minister’s grievance cell attached to the home and political department on May 6 and it was received by the concerned person on May 9, I filed an RTI on May 11 to know its status. Over a month has passed and I am yet to get a reply.”

As per the PMO website, the letter has been forwarded to D.J. Borkakoti at the home and political department. Borkakoti could not be reached.

“I wrote to PM Modi only because he talks about zero tolerance to corruption. The Louis Berger case is the most high-profile case of corruption in the state. The public has a right to know what happened. However, the efficiency and impartiality of the CID, which is investigating the case, has come under a serious cloud recently. The state government has ordered an inquiry into those allegations made by a contractor against the department. Following this, I also wrote a letter to the chief minister, drawing his attention to the negligence of the CID in the Louis Berger case too,” Handique said.

He added, “Also, since the US government is keen to give us evidence, it is now a matter of prestige of the Indian government to procure it. It is to protect the name and fame of the country before the international agencies. After all, we don’t want to be seen by the world as a country that allows high-level corruption.”

In April, during an interview to The Wire, Sonowal, who holds the home portfolio, said the biggest challenge of his government is corruption “not just at the top level but down to the bottom”. Asked about the progress of the Louis Berger case, the chief minister categorically said, “We will look into it too.”

Three months later, it is evident that there is no sense of urgency about the case.