Anything is possible in a bribery case where an MLA from the ruling party — the BJP, in this case — is the prime accused and his son was nabbed red-handed while accepting bribes in Karnataka.
Or, at least that is how things appear in the case of BJP’s Channagiri MLA Madal Virupakshappa.
The anticipatory bail plea filed by the MLA’s counsel on Monday, 6 March, came up for an urgent hearing the very next day at the Karnataka high court, shocking even the legal fraternity with its speed. The judge passed an order granting interim bail to MLA Madal Virupakshappa on Tuesday.
The MLA, who had been “absconding” for days, suddenly reappeared after procuring pre-arrest bail and was accorded a hero’s welcome by his supporters. The MLA even insisted that the money found during the raids were “agricultural proceeds”. It doesn’t end there.
Meanwhile, the Lokayukta’s police wing on Tuesday changed the Investigating Officer (IO) — an official of the police inspector (PI) rank — who led the search teams both at the MLA’s office on Crescent Road in Bengaluru as well as the MLA’s son’s house in Sanjay Nagar — and appointed an official of the deputy superintendent of police (DySP) rank.
This move by the Lokayukta police elicited suspicion not only from among the members of the Congress party in the Opposition but also among members of the general public.
According to Lokayukta sources, the ombudsman justified this move as ‘legal’ stating that there are provisions under the law to change the IO as per the ‘supervisory powers’ of the agency or the institution.
Why was the IO changed?
Until Tuesday, the IO for the bribery case was Inspector B.G. Kumaraswamy. However, on Tuesday, a meeting was called among the senior police officials in the Lokayukta, which directed DySP-ranked officer Antony John to lead the case.
The Lokayukta police sources explained to South First that since Kumaraswamy was a part of both raids, he could be a vital witness in this case, and ideally a witness cannot become an IO or lead the investigation.
Elaborating further, the Lokayukta police sources said that it was decided that the inspector-ranked IO would be replaced by a DySP-ranked IO — an upgrade — as the prime accused in the case was a four-time sitting MLA, and only a senior police officer would be well-equipped to lead and supervise the course of the investigation.
“In law, there is no prohibition to change the IO. The department or the agency could change the investigating officer based on its supervisory powers,” former Karnataka Lokayukta Justice (retired) N. Santosh Hegde told South First.
“However, with this move of the Lokayukta’s exclusive police wing in a sensational case like this, suspicion will always linger in the minds of people who are closely monitoring the case,” he added.
“The excuse of changing the leadership of investigation cannot be a satisfactory answer, especially after the successful raids,” Hegde said.
Injunction order on media houses
Meanwhile, counsel for MLA Madal Virupakshappa, who had filed for anticipatory bail on Monday, also managed to obtain a temporary injunction (gag) order against 46 media houses the same day over apparently “defamatory reportage” regarding the case involving the MLA and his son.
Madal Virupakshappa’s counsel moved the City Civil Court, filing an Original Suit (OS).
The court ordered: “The defendants are hereby temporarily restraining from airing or broadcasting or publishing or expressing any defamatory opinion against the plaintiffs in the news channels, public media, and also conducting any panel discussions in any manner, till next date of hearing.”
Letter from advocates’ group over ‘lightning speed’
Channagiri Assembly constituency MLA Madal Virupakashappa, also a close confidant of former Karnataka chief minister and BJP strongman BS Yeddyurappa, has managed to obtain interim anticipatory bail.
Soon after the MLA was granted bail on Tuesday, the Bengaluru Advocates Association expressed its dismay over the swiftness with which the judiciary acted upon the plea just because the petitioner was an MLA.
The association wrote to the Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, stating that the Karnataka High Court usually takes several days — or even weeks — to post new matters such as anticipatory bail.
However, matters involving VIPs are “entertained overnight”, the letter stated, expressing concern that if MLAs were not treated as common people, the masses would end up losing faith in the judiciary.
The letter also sought to direct the Karnataka High Court’s registry to post all anticipatory bail petitions in a single day to ensure that common people were treated the same way.
What happened in high court?
On Tuesday, counsel for the MLA was directed to serve the copy of the anticipatory bail petition to BB Patil, counsel for the respondent, which is the Lokayukta police, in open court.
Senior counsel for Virupakshappa told the court that, other than the naming of the MLA as Accused No 1 in the FIR, there was absolutely no allegation of demand of any bribe by the petitioner.
Even in the remand application did the police state that they were yet to collect the evidence against the petitioner, and were continuing the investigation against this petitioner.
There is no demand and acceptance of any bribe by the petitioner except the false implication of the petitioner made by the complainant in the FIR, argued the counsel.
He also submitted that his client was the chairman of the Karnataka Soaps and Detergent Limited (KSDL), and a separate tender processing and accepting committee had been appointed, which would accept tenders.
The petitioner had nothing to do with accepting tender or payment of bills payable to the complainant, he argued.
And the petitioner was apprehending arrest at the hands of the police for having committed a non-bailable offence, even though there was no prima facie material placed against the petitioner in the FIR or in the remand application, senior counsel for MLA argued praying the court for granting anticipatory bail or interim anticipatory bail.
However, BB Patil objected to the petition and contended that now he had received the documents and copies of the petition.
He also contended that even on perusal of the trap panchanama, there was an averment made against the MLA saying that he demanded the money, as per the complainant.
Counsel for the MLA argued that the Tender Accepting Committee was altogether different, and there were eight members in the committee, of which the MLA was not a member.
Therefore, the question of demanding a bribe by this petitioner did not arise.
It was then the high court ordered, until placing the material against the petitioner MLA and pending disposal of the main petition, that the petitioner was entitled to interim anticipatory bail.
The case so far
Prashanth Madal, son of Madal Virupakshappa, was caught red-handed by the Lokayukta police on March 2 while accepting Rs 40 lakh bribe in connection with the award of a tender for the supply of raw materials to Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited (KSDL).
Rs 1.62 crore of unaccounted-for money was recovered from the office.
Subsequently, the Lokayukta police conducted searches at his Prashanth Madal in Sanjay Nagar and seized Rs 6.1 core.
The MLA resigned on March 3 as the chairman of the KSDL after the Lokayukta police registered an FIR against him and his son, where the MLA has been mentioned as the prime accused and his son A2.
New characters emerge
On Wednesday, the Lokayukta police registered two more FIRs, and Prashanth was named as the first accused in both. Others named in the FIR are “bribe givers” caught with huge amounts of cash.
One of the FIRs (Crime No. 13/2023) stated that the Lokayukta police found two men in the lobby of the MLA’s office on March 2.
The men identified themselves as Albert Nicola (51), and Gangadhar (45), field officers of the Chamrajpet-based firm Karnataka Aramos.
The police said that on interrogation, the men revealed that the firm’s manager Deepak Jadhav had sent them to pay a commission to Prashanth.
The investigators found Rs 45 lakh each in the bags the two men were carrying, the FIR said.
Documents about a company named Rawji Fine Fragrances Pvt Limited and tax invoices of Karnataka Aromas were also found in their possession.
The police seized the Rs 90 lakh found in their bags and inquired about the source of the money. They reiterated that the firm’s manager Jadhav had asked them to hand over the money.
A case was registered naming Prashanth as the prime accused, Nicola as the second accused, Gangadhar as the third, and Jadhav as the fourth accused.
The representatives of Karnataka Aromas and office staff of KSDL were named as the fifth and sixth accused.
“Others will be summoned for questioning and their statements will be recorded,” a Lokayukta police officer told South First.
The second FIR
The other FIR (Crime No. 16/2023), also registered on Wednesday, stated that two persons were waiting in the MLA’s office on 2 March.
The men were identified as Siddesh alias Anil, 28, a resident of Bheemasandra in Chitradurga, and Surendra alias Sundar, an accountant with a private company in Chamrajpet.
Siddesh identified himself as a distant relative of Prashanth. The police reportedly found ₹60 lakh in his bag, and he could not reveal its source.
After seizing the cash, the investigators checked Siddesh’s bank accounts and found various transactions between him, Prashanth, and Surendra. Neither of the men could give satisfactory answers when asked about the transactions.
The FIR said Siddesh was the benami owner of Prashanth’s properties, and he used to carry the cash from the MLA’s office and invested it elsewhere.
Prashanth was the first accused in the case, and Surendra and Siddesh are the second and third accused, respectively.
The two FIRs registered on March 8 were based on complaints filed by B.G. Kumaraswamy, a police inspector with the Lokayukta.
Three FIRs have been registered so far after the searches that were carried out on March 2 and the next day at the MLA and his son’s houses in Channagiri, Davanagere, and Bengaluru.