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Pooling in young minds, experts: ACB goes the extra mile to track DA cases

The Gujarat ACB pooled in young minds from National Forensic Science University (NFSU) and Gujarat Law University (GLU). Parallely, the ACB started lobbying with the state government for recruiting forensic experts, chartered accountants, and legal advisors.

Written by Vaibhav Jha | Ahmedabad |
Updated: January 23, 2021 5:49:05 am
Anti-Corruption Bureau, gujarat government, anti human trafficking units, Amreli and Surendranagar, forensics dept, gujarat news, indian expressGujarat government under the newly introduced annual budget 2021-22 intends to strengthen the state police units. (File)

On January 20, the Gujarat Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) registered the biggest disproportionate assets (DA) case in the last decade when it booked a retired deputy Mamlatdar in Gandhinagar for allegedly owning properties worth Rs 30.8 crore more than his taxable income.

From January 2020 to January 2021, the ACB registered 41 DA cases, which was the highest for any year.

Behind this rise in number of DA cases registered is the ACB’s strategy to pool in more young minds and recruiting various experts to assist the officials in such cases.

In March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic led to a countrywide lockdown thereby resulting in government offices being shut for months, the classic “bait and trap” method used by the ACB to catch bribes accepted by government officials, went defunct.

This led to a decline in the number of such cases registered.

As per statistics provided by the ACB, in 2020, only 198 cases were registered across Gujarat compared to 255 in 2019 and 332 in 2018.

It was then that the Gujarat ACB turned its turret towards tracking officials who have mounted disproportionate wealth with corrupt practices.

For this, teams of financial and forensic experts were needed to do meticulous research of accused officers’ profiles, follow the money and track their career postings.

The Gujarat ACB pooled in young minds from National Forensic Science University (NFSU) and Gujarat Law University (GLU). Parallely, the ACB started lobbying with the state government for recruiting forensic experts, chartered accountants, and legal advisors.

As per ACB officials, a total of 26 legal, technical and forensic experts and 75 special public prosecutors currently work with the agency. Since 2017, 30 interns from NFSU and GLU have worked with the ACB and currently, 10 are providing assistance on an internship basis.

Similarly, Gujarat ACB became the first anti-graft agency in the country to have formed a Benami and Disproportionate Assets (BaDA) unit led by an assistant director level officer.

According to Keshav Kumar, director ACB, Gujarat, the biggest change the agency saw with pooling in young experts was the rise in conviction rate of the ACB cases.

“From a meagre 19% conviction rate of cases in 2015, we now have a conviction rate of 41% in 2020. According to data released by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of Crimes in India 2019, the conviction rate of ACB stood more than the average rate of conviction in serious crimes such as murder and rape in Gujarat which was at 28.92%,” said Kumar.

 Follow the money

According to ACB officials, to make stronger cases of DA, teams of CAs, legal advisors and intern students work in tandem wherein they collect and study evidences of bank accounts and properties’ documents of accused and their relatives, follow the money in their bank accounts through years and tracking the rise in income of officer viz a viz their career postings. The public prosecutor then works with the CAs to prepare for a better case in court.

A characteristic method used by the ACB for DA cases is “data visualization in graphical representation of money transactions and assets acquisition to prove nexus theory of accused.”

Under this system, the financial experts use chart and graphical representation of data through simplified charts to depict the nexus of money, properties and luxury vehicles between the accused and his relatives, rise in income as per favoured postings and dubious bank transactions. According to ACB officials, this technique helps save time of court in heavy paperwork and also builds a strong case.

“On May 13, 2020, the Gujarat High Court gave a landmark judgment while hearing the bail application of Deven Chavda, an ACB inspector posted in Junagadh, who was caught taking a bribe of Rs 18 lakh. The court observed that in cases of DA, along with documents of the properties, known sources of income, bank accounts and expenditure, a data visualization in graphical representation of money transactions, be placed on record to oppose bail. We have now started depicting graphical representation of data in every DA case,” said an ACB official.

ACB officials believe that results are showing after they pooled in a young team.

As per statistics released by the ACB, 41 DA cases were registered with the revelation of Rs 81 crore of unaccounted money and assets belonging to government officials from January 2020 to January 2021, compared 8 cases in 2017, 12 in 2018 and 18 in 2019.

More convictions, fewer bails

According to ACB officials, over the years the agency has also tried to ensure better conviction rates and fewer bails approved by court. The agency said 174 chargesheets were filed with a conviction rate of 40 % in 2020. Similarly, in 2020, a total of 37 anticipatory bail applications and 88 regular bail applications were rejected by sessions court and the Gujarat High Court against accused officers.

In 2020, the ACB had sent 165 applications for voice spectrography tests out of which 115 were approved by court. Similarly, out of 203 applications to obtain call detail records (CDR) of accused, the court granted permission in 158 of them.

Setting up precedence for other agencies

The Gujarat Revenue department passed a notification order on December 5, 2020 asking for appointment of CAs to check the auditing conducted in public enterprises, public offices, and trusts. The order also stated that in case any discrepancy is found on behalf of the auditing firm, then strict action should be taken against them firm including seizure of audit fees, penalty, compensation for loss among others.

“The order was released by the revenue department after the ACB CAs found serious discrepancies in the audit of Sant Shiromani trust in Sabarkantha in August 2020,” said an ACB official.

Specialists: Fangs of ACB

On November 13, an ACB team in Surat raided a revenue Talati office at Adajan village and nabbed the Talati Hiralben Dholakia and her intermediary Kanti Patel allegedly accepting Rs 1,000 as bribe. The bribe amount was small, however, when the sleuths searched her office, they found Rs 95,000 cash kept at the most unexpected places such as underneath the seat cushion. When asked, the Talati had replied that the cash was kept for “official expenditure”. It was then that the ACB decided to send in a team of forensic experts to conduct Crime Scene Psychological Profiling led by Dr Hema Acharya, a forensic psychologist with the Gandhinagar based Forensic Science Laboratory.

Also part of her team was 28-year-old Jatan Pandya, a forensic advisor with the ACB for the past one year. Pandya has pursued her MSc in Forensic Sciences from the NFSU. “In such a case, it was important to conduct a crime scene sketch in order to ascertain that the money found was from unethical means,” said Pandya.

As per ACB officials, currently seven legal advisors, four chartered accountants, one forensic advisor, one technical advisor, one revenue advisor and 12 legal support staff form part of the specialists who have been appointed to build stronger cases.

The ACB also boasts of “state-of-the-art facilities” such as ‘Layered Voice Analysis’ system to check the call recordings of officials for verification, a forensic workstation among others.

On December 9, 2020, CM Vijay Rupani on the occasion of International Anti-Corruption Day said at an event,” We have provided legal advisors, panels of chartered accountants, technical advisors, revenue advisors, 75 public prosecutors and forensic experts to the Gujarat ACB so that it keeps its sustained fight against corruption. We have provided a modern interrogation room with voice analysis technology to ACB and Rs 90.5 lakh has been given to the anti-bribery unit to purchase state of the art gadgets. We have also offered internship opportunities to students of NFSU and GLU in anti-bribery unit under ACB.”

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