On June 3, a senior investigator in the Kerala Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau wrapped up his probe report in the bar bribery case with this explosive conclusion: there is evidence of corruption against Finance Minister K M Mani. But on July 7, when this report was submitted to the Vigilance court, its finding was just the opposite.
What happened in those 34 days that forced the investigator R Sukesan, an SP-rank police officer, to do a complete U-turn?
According to official documents and court papers examined by The Indian Express, the probe report was diluted on the direct orders of Vigilance director Vinson M Paul who sent a scrutiny report to Sukesan on June 27 saying the case would not stand before a court of law.
Paul also attached a covering letter in which he asked Sukesan to use the conclusions of the scrutiny report in the final probe report that gave Mani a clean chit.
Both the scrutiny report and the covering letter from Paul were referred to by the Vigilance court in its October 29 order rejecting the final probe report and ordering further investigation.
Late on Tuesday, a day after the Kerala High Court endorsed the Vigilance court order to investigate the case further, Mani resigned from the Cabinet.
The Indian Express had reported on Tuesday about Paul admitting on record that he “might have had several calls and meetings” with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy on the case after the first FIR was filed on December 10, 2014.
Six months of investigation later, here’s how the Vigilance probe report arrived at two conclusions in the span of one month:
* On June 3, the initial report stated: “To sum up, the investigation officer is of the view that the evidences forthcoming in respect of acceptance of bribe of Rs 15 lakhs, Rs 10 lakhs at Pala and Thiruvananthapuram on March 22, 2014 and April 2, 2014 respectively by the accused can attract the provision of Section 7, Section 13(1) (d) and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act.” Describing the reputation of the accused as “not satisfactory”, the report stated: “The accused may be prosecuted u/s 7, 13(1) (d) r/w 13 (2) of PC Act 1988.”
* In sharp contrast, the final report on July 7 said: “In this circumstance, it is concluded that the materials collected during the investigation is insufficient to substantiate the offence as alleged. Accordingly, the final report is submitted before the Hon’ble Court with a prayer to drop further action in this case and delete the same from the list of cases pending before the Hon’ble Court.”
The detailed court order also directly quoted key parts of Paul’s scrutiny order and covering letter:
* “There is no sufficient materials to prove the ingredients of Sections 7, 13(1) (d) r/w 13 (2) of PC Act 1988.”
* “Vigilance ADGP who scrutinised the file also rightly opined that the material evidence gathered by the investigation officer is inadequate to prosecute the accused under PC Act.”
* “Legal Adviser VACB also opined that the offence alleged against the accused has not been substantiated and the successful prosecution before the court of law was remote.”
Referring to these lines, the Vigilance court came down heavily on Paul, stating that it was clear that a “superior officer is having no authority to direct the officer in charge of the police station to file the final report in a particular mode.”
The court further observed: “That means the investigation officer and the Director, VACB viewed the materials collected during the course of investigation in two different angles and formed contradictory opinions.” The court also made it clear that only a magistrate is entitled to take a view on the evidence, not the superior officer.
Following the court’s adverse remarks, Paul, who is barely a month away from retirement, stepped down from the job and proceeded on leave.
The first FIR in the case was based on a verification report submitted by the Vigilance bureau following allegations from liquor baron Biju Ramesh and Opposition CPI(M) leader V S Achuthanandan that Mani had accepted Rs 1 crore as bribe from bar owners to reopen over 400 bar-hotels found to be “substandard”. Mani and Chandy have denied the charges.
When Paul was asked about his own role in diluting the probe, the IPS officer told The Indian Express that his conclusions mentioned in the scrutiny report was based on his “understanding” of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
“SP Sukesan went wrong in appreciation of evidences. My scrutiny report was only to point out his mistakes. My covering letter did not insist that he accept my view but only suggested that he should consider them. Otherwise, let him say that I put pressure on him,” he said.
Sukesan, who is awaiting a promotion to IPS cadre, declined to comment. Records show that before submitting his initial report, Sukesan had investigated the case for six months collecting evidence and testimonies from over 300 witnesses, including details of bank transactions, analysis of Call Details Records (CDR), receipts and hotel bills.
But Paul insisted that there was “no direct evidence” of Mani demanding or accepting any bribe. “No circumstantial evidence will stand before the law unless it unfolds an unbroken chain of events leading to the direct evidence and charges,” he told The Indian Express.
Admitting that he became familiar with the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 only after he joined the Vigilance bureau, Paul said: “Why didn’t the court frame charges against Mani instead of asking for a further probe (if there were direct evidence)?”
However, a senior law official linked to the case questioned Paul’s understanding of the corruption Act, particularly on the point of direct evidence.
Speaking to The Indian Express, on the condition of anonymity, the official said: “You cannot expect evidence in the form of high-resolution video footage of an accused demanding and accepting bribe in corruption cases. The Supreme Court has clarified that the evidence need not necessarily be a direct evidence in bribery cases and that conclusions must be drawn on the facts of each case and not on the facts of other cases.”
Detailing the available evidence, the official said: “In this case, there are crucial witnesses, at least 15, although some who gave supporting evidences during the preliminary inquiry had changed their versions later. Circumstantial evidences are also strong enough with CDR analysis of more than a dozen witnesses. The result of a polygraph test of one key witness also strengthening charges of handing over of money to Mani.”
Responding to Paul’s argument on the court not framing charges, the law officer pointed out that the scrutiny report and the final report, both steered by Paul, had stated that evidence was insufficient.
“But noting the comprehensive factual report with evidences, court found that the final report was contradicting the evidences and opinion of the investigation officer and the agency. If Paul had allowed Sukesan to go ahead with his original findings, the court may have framed charges. It was the letter from Paul which effectively prevented that,” he said.
Incidentally, Paul’s scrutiny report was based on advice from two senior private lawyers in Delhi, L Nageswara Rao and Mohan Parasaran. But now, Kerala’s law ministry, a portfolio that comes under Mani, has refused to clear their bills of around Rs 7 lakh, saying rules were “not followed” while engaging them.
According to Kerala Law Secretary B G Harindranath, the Advocate-General should have recommended the decision to approach the lawyers. “Consultation of A-G was not evident in the file when it was came up for approval. So the A-G has to recommend it. I would have cleared it even now if A-G’s consultation was shown in the file,” Harindranath told The Indian Express.
Friday: Mani, witness statements do not add up