The new Chief Vigilance Commissioner has several skeletons in his closet, finds Tusha Mittal
MONTHS BEFORE the multi-crore 2G spectrum scam rocked the country, the PM and the home minister recommended that a former telecom secretary, Polayil Joseph Thomas, be appointed India’s Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj dissented saying there were skeletons in his closet that did not deem him a man of ‘impeccable integrity’.
In a functioning democracy, her negative vote should have been enough to stall the appointment. By mandating her inclusion in the decision making committee, the CVC Act of 2003 tried to ensure the CVC does not end up being a government cipher. But on 7 September, in a ceremony boycotted by the BJP and President Pratibha Patil in attendance, Thomas was sworn in as the head of India’s premier watchdog body.
There is no evidence yet to show that Thomas was directly involved in the 2G spectrum allocation scam or that he has monetarily benefited from it. But examine the skeletons in his closet — letters to the law ministry seeking to restrict the role of CAG and CVC, attempts to shield and promote tainted officers with CBI charges against them, a chargesheet accusing him of criminal offence — and what emerges is the image of a rubber stamp. What is most glaring is the conflict of interest — a man who sought to undermine the authority of India’s vigilance agencies (CAG, CVC, CBI), as is evident from the documents with TEHELKA, is now himself the CVC. Perhaps that is why while hearing a PIL on 23 November, the Chief Justice of India exclaimed, “How can this man be CVC?”
For instance, on 12 August this year, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) wrote to the law ministry that A Raja “has observed that the opinion of the Ministry of Law and Justice on the powers and duties of CAG may be obtained” regarding the “scope of the proceeding initiated on 18 November 2009 by the DG, Audit, challenging several policy decisions taken by the Government”. Within 24 hours, DoT received the desired reply from the law ministry. As CVC, Thomas can now monitor the CBI investigation into the very scam he tried to shield. He will also be consulted in the appointment of the CBI director.
“It is clear that the government has appointed Thomas mainly to have a pliant CVC in the face of severe embarrassment over the multi-crore rupees 2G spectrum allocation and Commonwealth Games (CWG) scams,” says Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan in his petition. “He is likely to be used for a cover-up in these two and other major scams.”
Thomas, 59, began his career as a District Magistrate in Ernakulam in 1982. He went on to hold key posts in the state as Chief Electoral Officer at the State Election Commission and Chief Secretary in 2007, before moving to Delhi as Secretary, Parliamentary Affairs, in January 2009.
It was a slip of his tongue at a family function in Kerala in 1993 that caused the skeletons to tumble out. At the time, his brother-in-law James Joseph was Accountant General of Kerala. Joseph casually asked Thomas if he would submit the files pertaining to the palm oil import deal in case the Accountant General asked for them. “The AG would not touch me,” Thomas said boldly. It was this snub that apparently sealed his fate.
A year earlier, citing shortage of edible oil, the Kerala government had imported 15,000 tonnes of palmolein from Malaysia. Thomas was then Secretary, Food and Civil Supplies. It was later exposed that the government had paid much more than the market rates leading to a loss of Rs. 2.8 crore to the exchequer. The scam rocked the Assembly. In March 1997, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau identified accused officers with the then CM K Karunakaran as accused No. 1, fixed responsibility and filed a chargesheet. Thomas stands as accused No. 8 under the same Prevention of Corruption Act, which ironically, he as CVC is supposed to enforce.
Karunakaran appealed to the SC to quash the FIR. Dismissing the CM’s appeal, the SC said, “The menace of corruption cannot be permitted to be hidden under the carpet of legal technicalities.” The CM appealed to the apex court four times and managed to get a stay order on the trial in his last appeal. The case is yet to be heard. TEHELKA has documents from a Kerala court confirming that Thomas is still an accused and has not been exonerated.
There is a view among IAS officers in Kerala that Thomas was made a scapegoat by politicians and that he is honest but pliable. “The palmolein case is the chief minister’s baby,” says former CM Oommen Chandy. But having a malleable officer as the CVC is not in the nation’s interest.
A man who has sought to undermine the authority of watchdog agencies is now India’s vigilance chief
In more damning evidence against Thomas, TEHELKA has details of a case involving favours to Motorola, which bid for providing CDMA-based WLL service to MTNL. In 2003, the CBI registered an FIR against unknown public servants of MTNL/BSNL after it recovered Rs. 50 lakh in a raid from a middleman between Motorola and the officers concerned. MTNL made a payment of Rs. 7.18 crore to Motorola.
TEHELKA has accessed a letter written in 2008 by CBI Joint Director YP Singh to Telecom Secretary detailing the agency’s findings. Among the MTNL bigwigs named are RSP Sinha and TR Gandhi. Sinha is said to have cleared Motorola’s bills despite deficient service and objections by the MTNL board. He became CMD in August 2004 and after five years got an ad hoc extension. That this clearance was given by the CVC without looking into CBI’s earlier allegations itself casts a doubt on the CVC.
SINCE THOMAS was Telecom Secretary at the time, it is clear that such an action could not have taken place without his approval — intentionally or as a rubber stamp. However, in the case of the second tainted officer, Gandhi, documents show that Thomas was seeking to favour him.
Preliminary CBI investigation shows Gandhi played a role in change of tender conditions, release of payments, and for non-action against Motorola for its nonperformance. He also failed to recover from Motorola the infrastructure cost for non-MTNL sites, which it was supposed to bear. Yet, in July 2009, he was considered for the post of Director (Finance), BSNL.
On 10 March, DoT, with Thomas as Secretary, urged the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) to approve his appointment. The ACC not only rejected it but also reprimanded Thomas.
In a sense, Thomas’ batting for Gandhi shows direct disregard for corruption that the CBI accused him of. Ironically, if Thomas continues as CVC — it is he who will oversee all such complaints by the CBI on corrupt officers across the country.
With inputs from Jeemon Jacob and Shahina KK in Kerala