Saturday, May 22, 2010
TAPPED and TRAPPED
Govt taps PR honcho’s phone, gets clinching evidence against Raja
The cat is finally out of the bag. The CBI has acquired clinching evidence showing that a high-profile woman public relations lobbyist acted as powerbroker in the mutli-crore 2G spectrum scam and that she was in regular touch with Telecom Minister A Raja.
The investigating agency unearthed damning evidence of wheeling-dealing in the spectrum scam by authorised tapping of telephones of several persons, including Nira Radia, who runs several public relations and consultancy companies — like Vaishnavi Corporate Consultants, Noesis Strategic Consulting Services, Vitcom Consulting and Neucom Consulting.
All these companies are filled with retired bureaucrats, who ostensibly lobby with the Government on behalf of different companies. Radia is an NRI, who landed in India in early 2000 for some liaison work for aviation companies. Of the nine companies that benefited from the dubious spectrum allocation by Raja, the CBI found that four companies were “serviced” by Radia.
Highly-placed sources said the CBI was denied permission by top authorities to interrogate Radia even though the telephone intercepts clearly exposed her role in the scam, which cost an estimated Rs 1,00,000 crore to the exchequer.
A communication between the Income Tax Department and the CBI shows that nine phone lines were tapped by the I-T Department’s investigation wing. The first phase of 120 days of tapping started on August 20, 2008, and the second phase of 180 days on May 11, 2009.
Sources in the CBI said that in addition to Radia’s, the telephone lines of several other influential businessmen, politicians and advertising professionals were tapped for uncovering the extent of lobbying in the scam.
Sources said that the first-phase conversation tapping, lasting 120 days, exposed the parking of ill-gotten money from the spectrum scam in the form of real estates holdings, company shares and derivates within the country and in tax havens like Mauritius.
Documents available with The Pioneer show that Central Bureau of Investigation DIG Vineet Agarwal had on November 16, 2009, sought call detail records of Nira Radia from Director General of Income Tax (Investigation) Milap Jain. “It has been reliably learnt that certain middlemen, including one Ms Nira Radia of M/s Noesis Consultancy, were actively involved in the above-mentioned (spectrum scam) criminal conspiracy,” Agarwal’s letter to Jain, seeking the detailed call records, stated.
On November 20, 2009, as per Jain’s instructions, Joint Director of Income Tax Ashish Abrol provided the details of conversation between Radia and key players in the spectrum scam, including A Raja.
“There are some direct conversations between Ms Radia and the Telecom Minister. In some other conservations, Ms Radia boasts of having helped some of the telecom operators in their efforts to obtain licences/spectrums. Ms Radia has also been in regular touch with Shri Chandolia,” confirmed Abrol to the CBI. RK Chandolia was Raja’s private secretary during the time of spectrum allocation and has since been elevated as an economic adviser in the Department of Telecommunication.
“On the basis of specific information received from CBDT, the telephone lines of Ms Nira Radia and some of her associates were put under observation after obtaining permission from the Home Secretary,” Abrol wrote to Agarwal in a letter, marked “Strictly confidential and top secret”.
“The intercept provides the conversation of the target and associates indicating laundering and structured payoffs, transactions and liaison for projects of telecom, petroleum and also the media,” the I-T Department communication to the CBI stated.
Radia’s companies are involved in consulting in telecom, power, aviation and infrastructure. These entities not only managed the media but, as per the recorded conversations, apparently tried to influence policy changes and decisions of various Government departments to suit the commercial requirements of their clients, confirmed the Income Tax Department’s investigation wing to the CBI after analysing the telephone conservations.
“From these conversations, it appears that Ms Nira Radia might have had some role with regards to the award of telecom licences. In a conversation, she guided a new telecom operator on the need to delay the inflow of funds from the overseas investor and not to give the impression to the Government that there has been any ‘windfall’ profit,” the letter added.
In the conversation details available with The Pioneer, Radia was talking about arranging huge money from abroad for Unitech Wireless, which is a major beneficiary in the spectrum scam.
According to CBI sources, Radia got information about the agency’s moves against her from her vast network in the South and North Blocks and left for London in February to avoid arrest for criminal conspiracy in the spectrum scam.
“The detailed telephone transcripts of Radia clearly show how our politicians and bureaucrats were hand in glove with the corporates in looting the public exchequer,” a top CBI official said.
Raja-Radia links go back 4 years
Telecom Minister A Raja had offered to help a woman public relations lobbyist, Nira Radia, four years ago get CCEA clearance for starting an airline -- a proposal that was shot down by other Ministers. But it was just the beginning. Later, Raja helped her get environmental clearance for some housing projects launched by two corporate giants. The telephone intercepts of Radia, as reported by The Pioneer on Wednesday, show that she was in touch with Raja regarding the 2G spectrum deal too.
Radia first got in touch with Raja through a woman politician in January 2006, when he was the Environment Minister. The woman who introduced Radia to Raja later became a Rajya Sabha member. Radia reportedly wanted Raja's support for lobbying with the Cabinet members in CCEA for getting approval to start an airlines company, known as Magic Airlines.
According to sources, Raja contacted three members of the CCEA to help out Radia. But they refused to back him. "It was a funny project. A real non-transparent project. There were lots of discrepancies in the mode of foreign investment," one such Minister told The Pioneer on Wednesday.
According to Environment Ministry sources, Radia became a frequent visitor and struck a big deal by getting environmental clearance for the pan-India project of housing development for the two big companies. This deal onwards, Radia's clout increased in the Environment Ministry. Due to the unceremonious exit of Dayanidhi Maran in May 2007, Raja landed in Telecom Ministry and Radia become a power centre as most of her big clients were key players in the sector. According to sources, the CBI investigated her role in the 2G spectrum scandal on the basis of confession of top DoT officials.
Sources said the CBI had evidence that just a few days before the spectrum allotment on January 10, 2008, a "criminal conspiracy" took place involving Radia and Raja. Of the allotted nine companies, four were served by Radia.
"The meeting between Raja and Radia along with the woman MP took place at Taj Mansingh hotel. The room was booked in the name of Radia. According to log book details of the official car and as per confessional statements by top DoT officials, the Minister's arrival at the hotel has been proven," said a senior CBI official.
The CBI sought permission to interrogate Radia after tapping her phone for over 300 days, but it was not allowed to do so by "highest authorities", said sources. Fearing her arrest, Radia left for London in February this year.
[The writer is Special Correspondent of ‘The Pioneer’ daily. The articles are published in the newspaper on April 28, 29 – 2010]
[Arun Dalmia (extreme right), arrested by CBI along with Chief Postmaster General MS Bali for accepting a Rs 2-crore bribe from a builder, is seen with Telecom Minister A Raja on his birthday on October 26, 2008, at his official residence in New Delhi]
In February this year, the CBI probe unit handling the spectrum scam laid its hands on highly incriminating evidence that indicated transfer of scam money to secret accounts in Switzerland and other countries, but under political pressure the ‘lead' has been conveniently buried.
The CBI stumbled upon damning evidence of money transfer in the spectrum case while probing the arrest of Maharashtra and Goa Chief Postmaster General (CPMG) MS Bali for accepting a bribe of Rs 2 crore from a builder for issuing a No-Objection Certificate (NoC) for granting construction permission on postal land at a prime spot in Mumbai.
Bali was caught red-handed in a Mumbai hotel late on February 24 along with Arun Dalmia, a frequent visitor to Telecom Minister A Raja's office and residence for five years. Dalmia's son Harsh was also arrested from the spot.
During interrogation, Dalmia told the sleuths about his two Swiss accounts and property details and high-volume cash transactions flowing into bank accounts in Delhi, Chennai, Singapore, Dubai, Malaysia and other tax havens abroad. Dalmia was for years on the
radar of the Intelligence Bureau and RAW, who had informed the CBI that this middle-aged man was a broker for a Chinese telecom equipment vendor. Raja's plan to grant an over Rs 20,000-crore deal to a Chinese telecom vendor for supplying GSM lines to BSNL was thwarted by the security concerns raised by these agencies.
Sources said the CBI suspected a link between the spectrum scam and the arrest of the duo when it learnt that Raja's private secretary RK Chandolia had asked Bali to visit the hotel and collect the bribe from the builder. "When Dalmia told us about their Swiss bank
accounts and hawala transactions, we knew we had laid our hands on a high-value catch," said a Central Bureau of Investigation officer. Chandolia was elevated to the post of economic adviser in the Department of Telecom by Raja and his role in the spectrum scam and money transfer was already being probed by the CBI.
According to sources close to Bali, the CPMG spilled the beans on the very first night of interrogation. Confirming this, a CBI officer told The Pioneer: "Bali told us that he got a call from Chandolia around 6 pm to go to the hotel along with Dalmia and collect the
But, shockingly, the role of Chandolia in fixing the deal never came up in the statements recorded by the CBI. "Bali became a scapegoat," sources said, adding that senior Dalmia also confirmed the role of Raja's office in fixing this deal.
After the CBI's Mumbai unit alerted its Delhi counterparts the following day about the confession made by Bali and Dalmia and the possible link between the spectrum scam and Bali, a CBI team airdashed to Mumbai to interrogate the duo.
"But when we reached Delhi, our bosses got instructions from ‘highest authorities' to delink the Mumbai case from our ongoing investigation. The Mumbai unit also got instruction to limit the case to Bali and Dalmias," said a CBI official, adding that they were denied permission to verify the transaction details of the two Swiss accounts of the Dalmias.
According to Ministry insiders, Dalmia could be a key player in the spectrum scam. He arrived in early 2005 in Raja's office in Paryavaran Bhavan, when the latter was Environment Minister. Dalmia was accompanied by two young women and his visiting card showed him to be the Honorary Consular General of a little-known African country, Ministry sources said. "We checked with the External Affairs Ministry and found that he was a fraud. But, in the meantime, he established direct contact with the Minister," insiders said.
Sources recalled that Dalmia was always escorted by young women whom he introduced as his secretaries. His fortunes shone when Raja became the Communications and IT Minister. Dalmia became the liaison man for a Chinese telecom giant in India, which had a significant presence in the southern and western regions of the country. He operated a slew of financial consultancy services across India and tax havens abroad.
The CBI team found concrete evidence, including photographs, to establish the Minister's close link with Dalmia in the two-day-long searches at his house. Finding evidence of several high-volume foreign transactions, the Central Bureau of Investigation brought the
matter to the notice of the Enforcement Directorate, but to date no progress has been made in the case.
"We were told to stay away from Raja and his men," a senior agency official maintained.
[The writer is Special Correspondent of ‘The Pioneer’ daily. The report published on the newspaper on May 3, 2010]