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EVEN AS the Income Tax (IT) department stepped up its probe into the alleged ‘benami transactions’ of the arrested former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal, the state Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) is awaiting the findings from the architects of the J J School of Arts to ascertain the value of the “disproportionate assets” of the NCP leader. The findings are deemed necessary to help the ACB file chargesheet in the disproportionate assets (DA) case it filed against Bhujbal and his relatives last year.
During the course of the investigation in the DA case, the ACB sought help from the Public Works Department (PWD) in evaluating the worth of furniture, artefacts and other artworks in the properties owned by Bhujbal and his relatives. Decorative paintings, chandeliers, imported flooring, designer toilets and other expensive furnishings and fittings installed in the palatial Solitaire building, where Bhujbal stayed with his family, will be treated as evidence by the ACB in the said case. The PWD subsequently roped in architects from the J J School of Arts to help it ascertain the value of these items.
According to a senior officer privy to the details, many imported decorated furnishings were bought and installed in Solitaire by the Bhujbals. “Say for example, a painting was purchased in 2009, we are trying to evaluate its worth both then and now as the cost of paintings appreciates over the period of time. This value can be ascertained only through experts. We, therefore, wrote to the PWD to help us evaluate the interiors. While the value of some of the items were ascertained by the experts hired by the PWD, cost of many of the items, especially paintings and artefacts, couldn’t be ascertained by experts. The PWD then roped in architects from the J J School of Arts… However, it has been nearly a year and we are yet to receive their reports,” an official told The Indian Express, not wishing to be named.
“Our case is about disproportionate assets owned by Bhujbal through kickbacks he received while awarding contracts. The findings of the architects are very necessary for our case,” added the official. This exercise commenced by the agency is not limited to the Solitaire building but is being carried out across all the properties owned by the Bhujbals in Mumbai, Nashik and other parts of the country.
“Unlike the ED, which is probing the money laundering aspect of the crime, ours is a case of disproportionate assets owned by the accused. The onus on us is to prove before the court that the amount spent by the accused is more than his known source of income. While calculating the cost of the property is a routine exercise, we also decided to factor in the expenditures that would have been incurred in doing up these places. This cost will be added to that of the property and will be mentioned in our chargesheet against the accused,” the official explained. “…The accused should be able to produced bills to prove how he bought the furniture and fittings,” explained another official privy to the case. “Through this, we will be able to ascertain that the money spent by the accused on buying these expensive furniture and fittings, in addition to the cost of the property, were actually through the bribe amount received by him for awarding the contracts and therefore these fail to make a mention in his account books,” added the official.
Meanwhile, the state agency has already started to probe the income source of the accused to strengthen its case. ACB sleuths are going through stacks of documents to trail Bhujbal’s real sources of income. This includes studying all the transactions of the contractors through whom Bhujbal allegedly benefited. “We need to prove the real sources of the income. Therefore, we are studying all possible transaction documents, bank accounts, invoices and various other account details to ascertain the real flow of money and to prove how fake invoices were raised to accommodate the kickbacks received. These were used to buy assets that have not been rightfully declared,” explained another official.
Finding that Bhujbal had amassed wealth over 7,152.50 per cent more than his known sources of income, the ACB, in May last year, had registered a disproportionate assets case against Bhujbal, his nephew Samir and his family members among others. In its FIR, the ACB stated that the senior politician had amassed Rs 203.24 crore between 1999 and 2014. The ACB made investigations into the wealth accumulated by Bhujbal, both individually and with his wife. While Bhujbal individually is accused of amassing wealth over 7,152.50 per cent, in the joint declarations between him and his wife Meena, the couple was found to have amassed wealth 32 per cent more than their known sources of income.
Similarly, the earnings of Pankaj Bhujbal and his wife Vishakha were found to be 45.27 per cent more than their income. Multiple agencies both at central and state level are probing Bhujbal on various charges. While the ACB was the first agency to lodged a case under the provision of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, charging Bhujbal of misusing his office while he was the Deputy CM, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) is investigating the aspect of money laundering. The Income Tax Department is probing Bhujbal and his relatives for having income and assets disproportionate to to their known source of income. Last month, they have provisionally attached four properties in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Nashik.
In February last year, the ED arrested both the former Deputy CM and his nephew Samir Bhujbal in a money laundering case. Both of them are currently lodged at Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail.