The high court said that the Assam CID has been investigating the case “in a partisan manner”.
New Delhi: Stating that the Assam CID has been investigating the multi-crore Louis Berger case in “a partisan manner”, the Gauhati high court has handed over the probe to the CBI.
In a late evening order on September 1, a copy of which is with The Wire, the two-judge bench comprising HC Chief Justice Ajit Singh and Justice Manojit Bhuyan stated, “It is crystal clear that the investigating agency (CID) has not investigated the case in the right earnest and has been conducting the same in a partisan manner. The mystery of such allegations involving misappropriation of enormous public money must not haunt the people of the state indefinitely and must come to a logical end at the earliest.” The HC, on August 2, made CBI a party to the case stating the slow pace of investigation by the CID.
The case has its roots in a July 2015 law suit filed against Louis Berger, a New Jersey-based consultancy firm, by the US department of justice (DoJ) under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Executives of the firm told a US court then that they and their consortium partners had – between 1998 and 2010 – paid bribes worth $976,6630 to unnamed “officials” in the Assam and Goa governments to corner water management consultancy projects.
While the then BJP government in Goa ordered its crime branch to file and FIR against unknown ministers in the former Congress government on the basis of the allegations, the Narendra Modi government also ordered an inquiry into the Goa leg of the allegations by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
The erstwhile Congress government in Assam came under huge political pressure from the BJP to act on the allegations in the run-up to the then assembly polls. Since the Gauhati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) project was reportedly decided by the Gauhati Development Department, whose minister then was the powerful Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP took a public stand against him in an 11-page booklet on the allegations of corruption in the case.
While Sarma, on August 29, 2015, jumped ship to the BJP, the Tarun Gogoi government, on August 7 that year, asked the state CID to register a case.
Meanwhile, Guwahati based social activist Bhaben Handique, along with two others, filed a PIL in the state HC seeking a directive to order a probe into the allegations by an independent agency, such as the CBI. Since then, the state CID has been periodically updating the HC about the progress of the investigation.
Though the Goa leg of the probe has led to a lot of progress, including confiscation of property of the accused, including former state chief minister Digambar Kamat, the Assam CID has failed to make much headway. Over the last few months, it even failed to update the HC thrice on any progress in the case, even though the US government in September 2016 and on October 10, 2016, had expressed its willingness to provide all documents related to the case to help investigate it to its logical conclusion. The US authorities, in response to the letter rogatory issued by the court of the CJM, Kamrup (Metropolitan) on May 4, 2016, invited a team of the state CID to conduct a video conference with it and thereafter travel to the US to collected the relevant documents related to the case.
The Wire has been reporting on the CID’s probe into the case and found that though the investigating agency was preparing to send the then investigating officer, special superintendent of police N. Rajamarthandan, along with two other police officials, to the US to procure the relevant material, the visit, for unknown reasons, was postponed. Days after the CID sought permission from the state government for the travel, Rajamardhandan was suspended and thereafter arrested on the charge of leaking “sensitive information” through an RTI in another case. On June 13, he was released on a default bail because the Assam police failed to frame a charge sheet against him within the stipulated period of 60 days.
Since then, two investigation officers have changed in the case. Rajamarthan’s junior officer, CID SP Indrani Barua, who took over the case, was removed in end May following allegations made by powerful farmers’ rights leader Akhil Gogoi that the BJP government was “safeguarding its cabinet cabinet minister Himanta Biswa sarma” by appointing her as the IO since “she is close to Sarma”.
The present officer P.P. Singh, when contacted by The Wire this past July 13 for an update on the case, said, “I am still the SP, Sonitpur, I have not taken charge of the case.” He then told this correspondent that he didn’t know when he would take over the case.
In its September 1 order, the Gauhati bench noted that the high court is empowered by the Supreme Court under Article 226 of the constitution to direct an investigation by the CBI in cases where there is sufficient material to prima facie conclude that there is a need for it. It said, “CID is under the state government and since high ranking officials are involved in awarding the contract after taking huge amount of bribe, we are of the view that CID is not in a position to act independently to bring the investigation to a fair and logical conclusion in accordance with law. In this background, we are of the view that the investigation of the case should not be conducted by any investigating agency of the state government and there is a need for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation.”
The HC said, “We accordingly direct the director, CBI, to take over the investigation of the case in question from the CID and bring the investigation to its logical conclusion in accordance with law.” It further said, “The case diary shall be submitted by the CID in a sealed cover to the custody of Registrar general of India in this court.”
According to reliable sources in the state CID, the September 1 HC directive came after the department handed it over “some incriminating papers” related to the investigation in sealed envelopes during the hearing.
Highly placed sources in the state government said it is likely to write to the central agency in the next 2-3 days to taken over the case.
Speaking to The Wire, petitioner Handique said, “The Louis Berger case is the most sensational case of corruption involving huge amounts of public money. The HC decision has given us hope in the justice system. We now hope that the CBI conducts the case as an independent agency and without any political pressure for the truth to come out as the common people of the state have a right to know who misused their money during the previous regime.”
Reacting to the The Wire report on the HC order, former state chief minister Tarun Gogoi – during whose regime the alleged scam took place – welcomed it in a tweet adding, “hope it [the HC] will monitor [the case] to unearth the truth.”
Gogoi had recently sought a CBI inquiry into the case. In response to Gogoi’s tweet on September 3, Congress leader Sarma said, “Sir you always forget that it was you who approved the project, not me.”