In terms of money, the solar ‘scam’ doesn’t quite live up to its name — the estimates swing wildly between Rs 6 crore and Rs 12 crore. Yet, it’s probably the biggest scandal to have rocked any government in the state so far. It all began 2½ years ago with the arrest of Saritha S Nair and her partner Biju Radhakrishnan, who had conned businessmen in the state and some NRIs by flaunting their high-level connections, including with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Nair has kept the issue alive by dropping a new name every now and then, mostly of politicians and their close aides. Her revelations are almost always followed by a scramble among politicians to cover up their links with Nair. On Wednesday, deposing before the Justice Sivarajan Commission that’s probing the solar scam, Nair accused Chandy and his Cabinet colleague Arayadan Mohammed of accepting bribe, a charge both denied.
In June 2013, the Kerala police arrested Nair and two weeks later, her live-in partner Radhakrishnan. They were both business partners in a Kochi-based firm, Team Solar Renewable Energy Solutions Pvt Limited, which offered solar energy solutions to institutions and households. In the beginning, it was a simple case of cheating. The couple would collect investments from businessmen and NRIs, promising to make them partners in wind mill projects and solar fields. They dropped names of politicians, including of Chandy, and that was enough to convince most businessmen to invest in their schemes. If that wasn’t enough, the couple would produce forged letterheads of the CM’s office and impress them by talking on the phone to the CM’s staff. One of the meetings, with an investor called Sreedharan Nair, reportedly took place in the chief minister’s conference room.
It was on a complaint by Sajad A, a Gulf-returned businessman, that the police moved to arrest Nair. Sajad alleged that the couple had taken Rs 40 lakh as consultation fee after promising to make him the owner of three wind mills projects. When did the project did not take off, he lodged a police complaint. Nair’s arrest led to more complaints trickling in and the police registered 33 cheating cases against the couple. They also moved to collect Nair’s call records. That’s when the names tumbled out.
The phone calls
Nair’s call records showed she had been in touch with Chandy’s staff members – personal assistant Tenni Joppen, additional personal assistant Jikkumon Jacob and Chandy’s security guard Salim Raj. Several of these calls had been traced to the landline in the CM’s office and to Joppen’s cellphone. Since the CM is known to use Joppen’s cellphone, there were insinuations that Nair was directly in touch with Chandy. The call details reportedly showed she was also in touch with 30-odd UDF leaders including two then Union ministers (K C Venugopal and Kodikkunnil Suresh), four serving or former state ministers (Adoor Prakash, A P Anil Kumar, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan and K B Ganesh Kumar) and eight MLAs including Congress legislators Hybi Eden and Mons Jacob. While most of the calls were made by Saritha, at least eight, including three by ministers, were reportedly made to her. Some of the ministers had made late-night calls lasting several minutes. A worried and embarrassed government had to act – and fast.
The UDF government dug out a pending murder case against Radhakrishnan, Nair’s partner. He had been accused of murdering his wife, Reshmi, in 2006. But the police, then under the LDF government, never moved fast enough on the case so Radhakrishnan freely walked in and out of political and bureaucratic circles in Kerala. He had even managed a closed-door meeting with Chandy in 2011 and his company had honoured several politicians as part of its promotional activities. In early 2014, a sessions court in Kollam sentenced Radhakrishnan to life term in connection with the murder. Since then, he has been in jail and making appearances before the judicial commission.
In December 2015, Radhakrishnan told the commission that he had paid a bribe of Rs 5.5 crore to Chandy. He also claimed to have visuals to show that Chandy and five others – ministers A P Anil Kumar and Shibu Baby John, Kumar’s personal secretary Nazeerulla, Congress MLA Hybi Eden and Congress leader Aryadan Shoukkath – had physical relations with Nair. The commission had allowed Radhakrishnan to recover the evidence and allowed him to search a house in Coimbatore, but the exercise drew a blank.
In February 2014, Nair got out on bail after eight months in jail. But she kept the state and its media hanging on to every word, or name, she uttered. While she was lodged in a district jail in Pathanamthitta in 2013, a four-page letter that she had written was handed over the court through the jail staff. Earlier this month, former Jail DGP Alexander Jacob told the judicial commission that the letter was initially 21 pages long and contained the names of 13 VIPs and a senior police officer. He said he had learnt of the contents of the letter from the jail staff. Jacob also revealed that when Nair was lodged in Thiruvananthapuram district jail, the jail got 150 applications, including from senior politicians, to see Nair. Jacob told the commission that it would be taken aback if the names of the leaders who queued up to visit Nair in jail were revealed. Jacob, though, didn’t reveal the names.
On Wednesday, Nair deposed before the judicial commission, a day after Chandy did so. The CM had told the commission that he was not involved in the scam and refused to undergo a lie-detection test as sought by Radhakrishnan’s counsel. Nair said she had paid a bribe of Rs 1.90 crore to Chandy in 2012 through his then aide in Delhi, Thomas Kuruvila, and Chandy’s additional PA Jikkumon Jacob for getting land and subsidies for her solar projects. Nair also alleged that Power Minister Aryadan Muhammed had pocketed Rs 40 lakh. Both Chandy and Muhammed have refuted the allegations.
The casualty list
While Chandy has suffered a blow to his reputation, his three personal staff members – Tenni Joppen, Jikkumon Jacob and Chandy’s bodyguard Salim Raj – have been fired from their jobs. Joppen, who had been Chandy’s right-hand man for over a decade, was arrested in July 2013 in a cheating case filed by an investor in Nair’s solar project.
Last week, senior IPS officer A Hemachandran, who has probed 33 cheating cases related to the scam, told the commission that Joppen, Jacob and Raj used to engage in long phone conversations with Nair, many of them with sexual overtones.
The only government official to lose his job in the scam so far is A Firoz, who was director of the Information & Public Relations Department. Firoz had allegedly introduced the couple to Salim Basheer, a businessman from whom they had allegedly taken Rs 40 lakh as consultancy fee with the promise of getting him an ADB loan.
The list of politicians whose names have come up so far is growing. In 2014, Nair filed a complaint with police, alleging Congress legislator A P Abdullakutty raped her in a government hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, where she was invited to discuss solar solutions in his constituency, Kannur.