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Bribe for visa case: CBI books Karti, searches premises linked to Chidambaram

Karti allegedly accepted a bribe of Rs 50 lakh to facilitate visas for 300 Chinese nationals, states CBI FIR

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi |
Updated: May 18, 2022 3:06:32 am
CBI team, enters Karti Chidambaram's official residence in New Delhi on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Tuesday conducted nationwide raids at various premises linked to former Union finance and home minister P Chidambaram and son Karti in connection with a fresh corruption case registered against the latter. Agency sources said raids were being conducted at 10 locations across Chennai, Mumbai, Koppal in Karnataka, Jharsuguda in Odisha, Mansa in Punjab and Delhi.

The fresh first information report (FIR), sources said, is based on allegations that Karti allegedly accepted a bribe of Rs 50 lakh that was sent to an account of one of his companies to facilitate visas for 300 Chinese nationals working with a Chinese company.

The CBI FIR has arraigned Karti, his alleged associate S Bhaskararaman, Talwandi Sabo Power Limited, Mansa, Vikas Makharia, a Talwandi representative and Bell Tools Limited, Mumbai as accused.

According to the CBI, Talwandi Sabo, a subsidiary of Vedanta group, was in the process of establishing a 1980 MW thermal power plant at Mansa and outsourced this to a Chinese company. However, the project was running behind schedule. In order to avoid penal actions for the delay, Talwandi Sabo wanted to bring more Chinese professionals to their Mansa site and needed project visas over and above the ceiling imposed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the CBI has alleged in its FIR.

“It has been alleged that in pursuance of the same, the said representative of Mansa-based private company (Talwandi Sabo) submitted a letter to MHA seeking approval to re-use the project visas allotted to this company, which was approved within a month and permission was issued to the company. A bribe of Rs 50 lakh was allegedly demanded by said private person based at Chennai through his close associate/frontman which was paid by the said Mansa-based private company,” the CBI statement said.

The Talwandi Sabo Power Project is a coal-based, super-critical thermal power plant located in Banawala village in Punjab’s Mansa district. The power plant is operated by TSPL, a subsidiary of Vedanta.

A TSPL spokesperson said, “The searches at our Punjab facility have been part of a larger CBI investigation. We are extending full cooperation to the authorities and facilitating the due process. We have no further comments.”

Sources said the raids were conducted at Karti’s Lodhi Estate premises and at the residence and offices of Bhaskararaman, his alleged chartered accountant.

The case is based on a reference sent by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to the CBI in 2018. The letter had claimed that during its probe against the Chidambarams in the INX Media case, it had stumbled upon evidence that a company, allegedly associated with Karti, was offered Rs 50 lakh by the Vedanta group to facilitate visas for 300 Chinese nationals when Chidambaram was the home minister.

The ED had said that the Vedanta Group had made the offer to Bhaskararaman in 2011. The ED assertions were based on certain email communications it had retrieved from the hard disk of Bhaskararaman’s laptop.

To an email sent to the Vedanta Group then by The Indian Express, the company had said, “Vedanta Ltd is not aware of any such allegation and is unable to comprehend why it is being pulled into a controversy. We, at Vedanta, always follow the best corporate governance practices.”

According to the CBI, the bribe payment was routed from Talwandi Sabo to Karti through Mumbai-based Bell Tools Limited as “payment of false invoice raised for consultancy and out of pocket expenses for Chinese visa-related works whereas the private company based at Mumbai was never in any kind of work relating to visas, rather it was in an entirely different business of industrial knives”.

The ED had in 2018 drawn the CBI’s attention to an earlier letter it had written to the agency in June that year regarding “digital evidence retrieved from a hard disk of S Bhaskarraman, CA of Karti P Chidambaram from the premises of Karti P Chidambaram, relating to a request of grant of 300 visas to Chinese nationals by the home ministry”.

The note claimed that the agency has now recovered more emails which suggest that Vedanta offered Rs 50 lakh to Advantage Strategic Consulting Pvt Ltd (ASCPL) in August 2011 for this job. The CBI has alleged that ASCPL is “indirectly controlled by Karti”.

While the reference did not specify where and how this money was paid, if at all, it did say that the visas were eventually granted.

The ED reference had said, “…one Shri Vikas Makharia of Vedanta group offered a sum of Rs 50 lakh to ASCPL in return for grant of visas. This offer was made via email dated 27.08.2011 …Bhaskararaman. This was followed by another email dated 02.09.2011, where Makharia thanked Bhaskararaman for grant of visas by the Ministry of Home Affairs to Talwandi Sabo Power Limited.”

The note had also attached copies of the emails that it mentions and a copy of P Chidambaram’s statement to the agency on August 28.

Karti has been under investigation in the Aircel-Maxis case and the INX Media case. In 2018, the CBI had arrested Karti in the INX Media case. A year later, the agency arrested Chidambaram.

In the INX Media case, the CBI and the ED have alleged that Karti exercised influence over certain Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) officials and the department to extend undue favours to media firm INX Media, allowing it to get FDI in excess of what was approved by the finance ministry and also allowed them to make a downstream investment in INX News.

The agencies have claimed ASCPL received a payment of Rs 10 lakh from INX Media on July 15, 2008. The ED has also claimed to have found four invoices, dated September 2008, raised by ASCPL, its Singapore subsidiary and two other companies for US $700,000.

Citing then INX Media director Indrani Mukerjea’s statement, the agencies have alleged that Karti had demanded US $1 million for the deal.

In 2018, the CBI filed a chargesheet against the Chidambarams in the Aircel-Maxis case. The agency alleged that when foreign investment in Aircel by Malaysian telecom major Maxis was cleared by the finance ministry on March 13, 2006, a payment of Rs 26 lakh was made by Aircel to ASCPL.

The CBI has alleged that Chess Management Services Holding Ltd, a company in which Karti is promoter and director, also received Rs 87 lakh in several installments from an associate company of Maxis.

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It is alleged that FIPB approval in the Aircel-Maxis FDI case was granted in March 2006 by Chidambaram even though he was empowered to accord approval on project proposals only up to Rs 600 crore. Beyond that, it required the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA).

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