Chief minister Oommen Chandy allegedly “interfered” in the probe into the bar bribery scandal involving Kerala Finance Minister and key Congress ally K M Mani, an investigation by The Indian Express has revealed.
The investigation, based on government records and interviews with key officials, shows that the state Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau, the agency in charge of the probe, watered down its final report and gave a clean chit to Mani.
This report, submitted to the Vigilance court in July 2015, was rejected last month by the Vigilance court which criticised the bureau for not filing a chargesheet against Mani and asked for “further investigation.” Today, the Kerala High Court upheld the Vigilance court’s decision.
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The bar-bribery scandal came in the wake of pressure within the Congress and various anti-liquor groups to rework the state’s liquor policy to reduce the consumption of liquor. This led to stringent inspections in bars, many of which were shut down. The first FIR in the case was registered on December 10, 2014, based on a Quick Verification Report (QVR) that sought a probe based on allegations raised by liquor tycoon Biju Ramesh and Opposition CPI(M) leader V S Achuthananthan that Mani had received Rs 1 crore from bar owners to reopen over 400 bar-hotels tagged as “substandard”. Mani has denied any wrongdoing.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Vinson M Paul, who was director of the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau when the probe report was written, confirmed that Chandy spoke with him “many times” when the probe was in progress.
“We might have had several calls and meetings in the Chief Minister’s chamber during the period after the FIR was filed,” said Paul, adding that he did not remember the details of the meetings. “He never asked me to help Mani in the case. His demand was a speedy completion of the probe. He asked me to complete it within specific dates, such as before the beginning of an Assembly session, etc,” said Paul.
Asked about the telephone conversation with Chandy before the FIR was filed, Paul said he “couldn’t recall” what happened that day. Paul went on leave the day the Vigilance Court rejected his report, he has a month before he retires.
Significantly, the Vigilance bureau does not report to the CM and comes under the Home Ministry which is headed by Chandy’s Congress colleague Ramesh Chennithala.
When contacted, Chandy denied he had contacted Paul during the probe. “I will resign if these allegations are proved,” he said, adding that he had no role in the final Vigilance report.
Sources, however, told The Indian Express that Chandy is said to have, in a series of interactions with Paul, put “pressure” on him to dilute the probe against Mani.
Asked whether Chandy had ever sought his help, Paul said the Chief Minister had asked him “for a favour only once, years ago,” when he was with the Crime Branch. “He asked me to help some people from his village who were arrested for ties to a counterfeit note racket. He said they were accidentally caught in the case. I said I cannot help but they may be allowed a chance to get advance bail,” said Paul.
Superintendent of Police R Sukesan, the Vigilance bureau officer who submitted the probe report on Mani, said he would not comment as “the matter was already controversial”.
(Tomorrow: A tale of two probe reports)