K M Mani may have quit as Kerala’s finance and law minister after the High Court ordered further investigation in the bar bribery scandal but Vigilance Bureau records accessed by The Indian Express show that more embarrassment is in store for the veteran politician and the Congress government his party supports.
These records pertain to three meetings between Mani and members of the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association (KBHA) in March-April last year. It’s during these meetings, KBHA members told investigators, that a bribe of Rs 1 crore was allegedly handed over to Mani to reopen over 400 bars that were declared “substandard” by the government. For the record to the Vigilance Bureau, Mani denied these meetings although when asked about the witness statements, he was ambivalent to The Indian Express.
“Not that I don’t know them (bar-owners) or met them, what I meant was I have not demanded money from them. If there’s no evidence for demanding or accepting bribe, Supreme Court itself has said that there is no case of corruption…If these charges against me are found to be true and they prove that I had taken money, it won’t be a problem because the law says that the cash collected during elections cannot be seen as illegal gratification. They (bar-owners) said I demanded money only for election purposes,” Mani said.
Two meetings, on March 22 and April 2, did take place in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in May 2014 in which Mani’s Kerala Congress (M), incidentally, did not participate. Vigilance records and witness statements to investigators establish these meetings. And the Vigilance report claims there is “substantial evidence” to prove that Mani received Rs 25 lakh in two tranches from KBHA leaders: Rs 15 lakh in the March 22 meeting at Mani’s private home in Pala and Rs 10 lakh at his official residence in Thiruvananthapuram on April 2.
KBHA leaders had told Vigilance about another meeting on March 31 but investigators haven’t been able to establish that. They were also unable to establish claims by KBHA leaders that Mani was given Rs 35 lakh on April 2.
Despite these contradictions, the Vigilance report quoting bar-owner statements and its own findings, establishes the sequence of events in the bar bribery case which begins on March 22, the day bar-owners met Mani. Earlier that same day, they had met Chief Minister Chandy at his official residence in Thiruvananthapuram to discuss renewal of bar licences who, according to the report, cautioned them against paying any bribe.
A brief recap of each meeting and relevant witness statements, according to the report accessed by The Indian Express:
March 22 meeting
* Jacob Kurian, state treasurer of KBHA, says he was part of a group that met Mani between 1.30 pm and 3.30 pm at his private residence in Pala. Kurian said he received Rs 15 lakh from Saju Dominic, a KBHA leader from Mani’s Kottayam district, who raised the money. Kurian said the cash, in a plastic cover, was handed over to John Kallat, considered close to Mani, who allegedly handed it over to the politician. But Kurian told police that he did not see the money being handed over as he was outside the room.
* Saju Dominic says he too was part of the group that met Mani in Pala but came to know about the bribe from other members, as he, too, wasn’t in the room.
* According to Biju Ramesh, the KBHA working president who first alleged that bribes were paid, five of his colleagues — Raj Kumar Unni, Krishnadas Polakulathu, John Kallat and M D Danesh and Sunil Kumar — handed the bribe to Mani.
* After the FIR led to a larger investigation, Kallat and Unni admitted they met Mani, Kallat also admitted that he received Rs 15 lakh from Kurian. But Kallat claimed the cash was handed over to Unni when they reached a hotel in Pala — after meeting Mani. Unni, in turn, said Kallat had given him the cash at Mani’s house.
* The Vigilance probe report states that these “glaring contradictions” strengthen the charge of bribery as the alleged witnesses failed to provide an explanation of how the Rs 15 lakh was used later, if it was not given to Mani. Moreover, the report states, analysis of calls made shows that Mani and KBHA members were in Pala at the same time. And Polakulathu had contacted Sibi, one of Mani’s secretaries.
April 2 meeting
* Unni admitted to meeting Mani at his official residence in Thiruvananthapuram but denied having paid any bribe.
* Ambili, Biju Ramesh’s driver, told police that he took Unni to Mani’s residence in Thiruvananthapuram early that morning after the appointment was confirmed at 6 am. “Packets containing cash in bundles of Rs 1 lakh each were put in two plastic carry-bags. There were about 35 such bundles of currency notes of Rs 1,000 denomination,” Ambili told police. He told police that he witnessed the handing over of money by Unni.
* Vigilance could not establish a trail for this Rs 35 lakh but its report says that Ramesh has alleged that he handed over Rs 10 lakh to Unni. Unni refused to undergo a polygraph test, but the results of Ambili’s test suggest he was telling the truth. Investigators also found a register that confirmed Ambili drove a car into the minister’s compound that morning.
On October 29, the Vigilance court rejected the conclusions of the probe report, which said there was not enough evidence against Mani, and ordered further investigation. On November 9, the Kerala High Court endorsed that decision.
(Tomorrow: The Congress minister who slipped under the radar)