Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Secret ‘payments’ and financial scams



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Last week’s piece headlined Treasury bond scams ‘mother of all problems’ discussed how 2015 February and 2016 March transactions caused rapid deterioration of yahapalana relationship, finally leading to the collapse of the UNP-SLFP arrangement, on Oct 26, 2018.

On the instructions of President Maithripala Sirisena, UPFA General Secretary, Mahinda Amaraweera, on behalf of the grouping, requested for the termination of the coalition.

Having sacked the UNP-led cabinet, President Sirisena appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, on Oct 26, 2018. Due to the failure on the part of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine to prove a simple majority in Parliament, Sirisena had no option but to dissolve Parliament on Nov 09, 2018, and set general election for January 05, 2019.

Had the UNP-JVP-TNA combine not sought the judicial intervention, by way of quo warranto petition against Prime Minister and cabinet of ministers, Sri Lanka would have had a new administration by now. Altogether 122 lawmakers successfully moved the Court of Appeal against the cabinet.

In addition to lawmakers, several others resorted to legal recourse against the Sirisena-Rajapaksa move.

Civil society activist, Ven. Dambara Amila Thera, was among those who filed a fundamental rights petition, on Nov. 28, 2018, in the Supreme Court, against appointing Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. Petitioner, Ven. Dambara Amila Thera, alleged that President Sirisena’s actions were contrary to the 19thAmendment to the Constitution.

Close on the heels of Ven Amila’s move, the outspoken monk was revealed as one of those who had received a Rs 95,000 monthly transport allowance, commencing 2016 April, from state-owned Litro Gas company. The Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) vilified Ven. Thera, following the revelation made in the Permanent High Court Trial-at-Bar hearing the high profile case, involving the then President Rajapaksa’s Chief-of-Staff Gamini Senarath and three others for the criminal misappropriation of Rs. 500 mn from Litro Gas Company.

Attorney-at-law Premanath C. Dolawatte, on behalf of civil society group Satya Gaweshakayo (Truth Seekers), lodged a complaint at the police headquarters against Ven Amila. Addressing the media, Dolawatte, who represented lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa on several occasions, in his capacity as Chairman Satya Gaweshakayo, accused Ven. Amila of misappropriation of public funds.

Joint Opposition heavyweight and head of its Economic Research unit, Bundula Gunawardena MP, demanded that then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake be arrested on the basis that Ven. Amila was paid on a directive given by the UNPer. The Colombo District MP held Karunanayake responsible for illegal Litro payments.

Hambantota District JO MP D.V. Chanaka alleged that the likes of Ven. Amila were paid to sling mud at former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and also to promote a new Constitution meant to divide the country on ethnic lines.

Matara District MP Kanchana Wijesekera said that Ven Amila and his colleagues had launched a protest campaign against the change of government as their payments were stopped. Wijesekera alleged Ven. Amila and his associates, including Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya, another Rajapaksa critic, had received payments from the UNP government. Wijesekera claimed that Ven Amila alone had received over Rs 1.3 mn at the taxpayers’ expense.

Kalutara District MP Rohitha Abeygunawardena and several Buddhist monks flayed Ven. Amila for receiving financial benefits at taxpayers’ expense to promote the UNP.

Ven Amila, who had often appeared on the platform of the civil society organization Purawesi Balaya wouldn’t have expected the disclosure of Litro payments made, via a secret account for services granted. A foolish bid was made, to justify Litro payments on the basis of a CSR (Cooperate Social responsibility) project. But, those who lambasted Ven. Amila over clandestine Litro payments would never have expected shocking revelations of former President Rajapaksa squandering public funds on onetime ‘Royal’ astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena. What transpired before the ongoing Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) on irregularities at Sri Lankan Airlines, Sri Lankan Catering and Mihin Lanka shocked those struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps, Abeygunawardena’s case is far more serious than Ven. Amila.

Can the two instances of misappropriation of public funds be compared?

But, interestingly, Abeygunawardena’s misappropriation didn’t receive much print, electronic and social media attention.

Sri Lanka at a crossroads

The JO/SLPP demanding a general election, to end political uncertainty, owed an immediate explanation as regards the shameful and shocking revelation made at the P CoI last Friday (January 04, 2019).

Both the UNP and the SLFP, regardless of accusations made against each other, as regards waste, corruption and irregularities, should explain their financial integrity before the forthcoming Provincial Council, Presidential and Parliamentary elections. With Sri Lanka under tremendous pressure to guarantee debt servicing, in 2019, amidst continuing political and financial turmoil, it would be the responsibility of the parliament to take meaningful measures to restore fiscal discipline.

Secret payments made to Ven. Amila, and Abeygunawardena receiving a car worth Rs 8.2 mn, from bankrupt Mihin Lanka, can never be justified under any circumstances.

Abeygunawardena has acknowledged that Mihin Lanka had brought him a Nissan at a cost of Rs. 8.2 mn, on the instruction of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2007.

Abeygunawardena had been President Rajapaksa’s astrologer at the time of this transaction.

Abeygunawardena revealed how he received a call from Major Nevil Wanniarachchi, former Chief Security Officer of Rajapaksa, directing him to get the car from Lanka Orix Leasing Company (LOLC) office at Rajagiriya. Wanniarachchi is still on Kurunegala District MP Rajapaksa’s security staff.

Replying to State Counsel Chathura Gunathilake, who led the evidence as to why the former President gifted him a vehicle, wily Abeygunawardena said: "I was a close associate of the former President, I think that’s why he gifted me the car. I wasn’t aware that the vehicle was owned by Mihin Lanka, I didn’t know anything of its ownership."

The revelation was made during cross examination by State Counsel Chathura Gunathilake under the supervision of ASG Neil Unamboowe, PC.

Abeygunawardena used the car till Rajapaksa’s defeat at the 2015 January presidential election. Now that Abeygunawardena claimed that he handed over the vehicle to LOLC it would be interesting to know who its current owner is.

The LOLC procured 26 cars for SriLankan airlines and Mihin Lanka. A loan to the tune of Rs. 82 million had been obtained by LOLC from Seylan Bank to purchase the cars. Mihin Lanka had paid the lease rental of these vehicles to LOLC.

The public have a right to know the identities of all those who had received cars at the taxpayers’ expense. Were all 26 recipients nominees of the then President? If not, who chose them? Did the lucky recipients serve SriLankan and Mihin Lanka or were they stooges looked after by the then administration?

For want of parliamentary oversight, successive governments had squandered taxpayers’ money on those who served the interests of the powers that be, regardless of the consequences.

Abeygunawardena is on record as having said that he advised twice President Rajapaksa to seek a third term, two years ahead of scheduled polls. Perhaps Abeygunawardena must have had a hand in other key political decisions such as the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to pave the way for Rajapaksa to seek a third term. The new law was passed on Sept 8, 2010,with 161 members of Parliament voting for and 17 against the bill.

Abeygunawardena received his Nissan within weeks after the establishment of Mihin Lanka in 2007.

P CoI has established both SriLankan and Mihin Lanka operated, sans financial discipline, causing massive losses to the national economy both during the war and afterwards.

The writer hopes the P CoI establish whether Abeygunawardena rendered any service to Mihin Lanka at all.

An astrologer on NSB board

Against the backdrop of Abeygunawardena’s admission before P CoI that he had received a car as he was a close associate of President Rajapaksa, it would be pertinent to examine how brazenly the National Savings Bank was exploited during the previous administration. Abeygunawardena’s role as Working Director of the NSB should have been examined at least after he quit the bank in May 2012 in the wake of the exposure of the controversial share transaction involving the NSB and The Finance Company (TFC). Abeygunawardena received a car, an official residence and a range of other perks and privileges courtesy NSB. Had he practiced his craft at the NSB, Abeygunawardena could have averted the NSB-TFC scam. Abeygunawardena unashamedly sought to build his image after NSB trade unions exposed the corrupt deal. Abeygunawardena declared that President Rajapaksa had visited him at his Galle residence where his decision to quit NSB board was praised by the President. A section of the media quoted Abeygunawardena as having claimed that he received thousands of letters from people, including politicians and scholars, praising him for quitting the NSB. Abeygunawardena never explained why he was accommodated on the NSB board and what were his qualifications to function as a Working Director of the premier savings bank in the country? Abeygunawardena declared that he twice opposed NSB-TFC transaction though he was overruled. Perhaps, Abeygunawardena should reveal whether he sought President Rajapaksa’s intervention to stop the corrupt transaction after his pleas weren’t ignored.

Abeygunawardena had simultaneously used two vehicles provided by the government in addition to various other incentives over a period of time.

Abeygunawardena’s resignation was followed by NSB Chairman Pradeep Kariyawasam’s, the husband of the then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Bandaranayake was impeached under controversial circumstances in the following year.

The allegation against Kariyawasam was also included in the impeachment motion brought against Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake.

Abeygunawardena and Kariyawasam resigned after the media slammed the bank over the corrupt transaction executed by the latter by securing a staggering 7.8 mn shares of TFC for Rs 390 mn on the floor of the Colombo Stock Exchange. The media pointed out the absurdity in the NSB paying 60 per cent above the prevailing price of TFC shares.

Contrary to Abeygunawardena’s claims, his resignation took place against the backdrop of heavy trade union pressure.

The government cancelled the questionable deal. The government action compelled Taprobane Securities Private Limited to buy back TFC shares that were traded in a controversial deal.

The broker company sold TFC shares to NSB on the 27th of April, 2012.

Seven years after the cancellation of the NSB-TFC deal, Kariyawasam, in late November 2018, received a suspended jail term of five years for his role in the transaction deemed illegal.

Kariyawasam was found guilty of causing losses to NSB by purchasing TFC shares

Colombo Chief Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake sentenced Kariyawasam to the suspended term of imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 300,000.

The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) moved the Colombo Magistrate Court against Kariyawasam for corruption in a transaction involving TFC perpetrated in April 2012. Kariyawasam was accused of acquiring over 7.86 million shares of TFC for over Rs. 391 mn in his capacity as the Chairman of NSB through four separate transactions.

Kariyawasam was charged with four counts of corruption under Section 7 of the Bribery Act for knowingly getting involved in a procedure that could cause losses to the Government.

In the absence of strict public sector oversight, successive governments provided employment to various people and looked after those who served their interests at taxpayers’ expense. Those who had criticized Ven. Amila for receiving secret payments, cannot ignore Abeygunawardena greedily taking advantage of the NSB and Mihin Lanka.

Many an eyebrow was raised over Charlie Mahendran’s piece titled ‘A Bourne Identity: How My Son was Made to Look Like a Criminal’ that dealt with treasury bond scams. Having reminded the reader how he had served the country from 1957- 2004 representing the Sri Lankan government’s interests abroad, heading diplomatic missions in China, Japan, South Korea and the UN mission in New York, Charlie Mahendran single handedly cleared his son, Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran of wrongdoing whatsoever in respect of 2015 and 2016 treasury bond scams. Mahendran dealt with an issue that may have not caused such political mayhem if not for quick witted action of the then Superintendent of Public Debt Department Deepa Seneviratne who guaranteed Mahendran’s subsequent exposure by placing a note as regards his controversial directive in respect of issuance of treasury bonds, on the morning of February 27, 2015.

One-time Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, in an interview (Treasury bond scams: Wijeyadasa alleges House blocked swift legal action-The Island January 02, 2019) with this writer alleged all political parties represented in Parliament on Oct 12, 2018 prevented the passage of the Presidential Inquiry Commission Amendment Act. Rajapakse asserted that the move deprived the CIABOC required power to utilize available evidence against those who perpetrated treasury bond scams. No less a person than President Sirisena has repeatedly alleged that the vital act had been held up for more than six months by the parliament.

A wartime financial deal with P’karan

Let me briefly discuss how Treasury Secretary R. Paskaralingam, in 1989 and 1990, on the orders of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, released funds to the LTTE. UPFA MP Bandula Gunawardena during recent battle, in and outside Parliament, following the sacking of Premier Wickremesinghe, recently made available photocopies of treasury documents which revealed what the then government called confidential payments. Paskaralingam still serves the administration. Gunawardena said that he was in the possession of payment vouchers and relevant cheque numbers to prove the Treasury provided Rs 125 mn to the LTTE from August 09, 1989 to November 05, 1990

The payments commenced soon after President Premadasa entered into direct dialogue with the LTTE. The intimidating presence of the Indian Army didn’t deter President Premadasa and payments continued even after the LTTE resumed hostilities in the second week of June 1990. India withdrew its Army in late March 1990. Interestingly, the largest single payment amounting to Rs 50 mn had been made on November 05, 1990 several months after the LTTE resumed hostilities. Altogether, there had been 16 payments, 15 of them amounted to Rs 75 mn in equal Rs. 5 mn installments and the largest one after the LTTE launched eelam war II. Premadasa obviously didn’t care about the LTTE massacring several hundred surrendered policemen. By the time the LTTE received the last installment, it had overrun all detachments north of Vavuniya up to Elephant Pass.

Did President Premadasa receive cabinet approval to fund the LTTE to the tune of Rs 125 mn? Why did the Treasury pay Rs 50 mn after the resumption of war?

Parliament never bothered to inquire into Premadasa funding the LTTE. Although, the then President must have had good reason to provide arms, ammunition, equipment and funds to the LTTE after he entered into direct negotiations with the group, but can funding be acceptable after the resumption of the war by the terrorist group. Why did the President allow Rs 50 mn payment to the LTTE several months after fighting erupted in the East and quickly spread to the northern theatre?

Who negotiated the funding of the LTTE on President Premadasa’s behalf?