Investigations into the bribery scandal surrounding Maharashtra Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse’s office progressed further Wednesday, with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) seeking government documents and files related to the land allotment issue.
Satish Mathur, Director General, ACB, confirmed his agency had sought all documents related to the matter.
The ACB is also likely to summon Khadse’s Officer on Special Duty (OSD) Unmesh Mahajan within a week’s time in connection with the case.
The ACB arrested Khadse’s close associate Gajanan Patil on May 13 over charges of demanding a Rs 30-crore bribe from an entrepreneur, Ramesh Jadhav, for a land allotment. While Khadse had distanced himself from the controversy almost immediately after the arrest and denied involvement of anyone from his official staff in the controversy, sources confirmed that the ACB’s decision to seek official documents regarding the land allotment indicated the agency had also taken up a probe to check if there were others involved.
The Indian Express had earlier reported that the ACB’s FIR contained recorded conversations between Patil and Jadhav, where the former had alluded that the bribe amount had been conveyed to him by one ‘Saheb’ and one ‘Unmesh’.
Speaking to The Indian Express about the decision to summon Khadse’s OSD Unmesh Mahajan, a senior ACB official said, “Though Patil posed as a PA to the minister, in reality he is not even a government servant and therefore Mahajan’s statement would be necessary to ascertain if Patil was bluffing or he indeed had some connection to help the complainant bag the land in lieu of the bribe demanded by him.”
The agency is also going to question Patil on his stay at the MLA guesthouse in South Mumbai. “Patil was staying at Room No. 113 of the MLA guest house in Churchgate. We are now probing who recommended his stay and if the stay had anything to do with the present case being probed by us,” said a senior official from the agency.
Records reveal that Jadhav, 70, an economist, had approached Khadse’s office seeking review of a previous government order regarding allotment of a 10.78-hectare revenue land in Kalyan’s Nilje village. The government had originally ‘intended’ to allot the plot to Jadhav’s trust in 2009, but eventually allotted to the state transport department for a vehicle inspection centre in 2014.
Records also show that ACB sleuths had been on Patil’s trail since September 14, 2015, when Jadhav first approached the agency alleging Patil had demanded Rs 1 crore and a flat for a favourable order. The FIR reveals ACB’s ‘panchas (witness)’ had accompanied Jadhav and recorded conversations between the duo during seven future meetings, six of which took place either in Khadse’s sixth floor office at Mantralaya or at his official residence, Ramtek, in Malabar Hill, when Patil allegedly raised the bribe demand to Rs 15 crore on September 22, and Rs 30 crore on May 5, 2016. The ACB lodged an FIR against Patil on May 9.
According to sources, Patil claimed innocence during interrogation, saying he was demanding a bribe in ‘jest’ and that the bribe amount was way too much than the value of the plot, which he claims to be less than Rs 5 crore. However the ACB is not convinced.
“It’s a 20-hectare land, which is currently valued at Rs 100-150 crore, and therefore demanding a bribe of Rs 30 crore does not seem unnatural,” said another official.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Khadse had claimed that the plot was allotted to the Regional Traffic Office (RTO). The ACB also found substances to the minister’s claim.
“In the past, the said plot was a ‘gaayran land’ meant to graze cattle and was a government property. The complainant did try to bag the land but since it was meant for government purposes, it wasn’t allotted to him. The plot was subsequently allotted to the RTO,” said an official. “Now that we have received the relevant files pertaining to the ownership and the subsequent transfer of the land, we will study in detail how the transfer took place,” added the official.
While the ACB has registered a case against Patil, nowhere in the recorded transcripts has he asked for Rs 30 crore verbally. “Ramesh Jadhav, the complainant told us that when he enquired with Patil on the bribe amount, he allegedly wrote ‘30’ on a piece of paper and tore it,” said another senior official.
Even though the agency had commenced a preliminary enquiry (PE) in connection with the case in September last year, a trap was set up only last week, after the ACB managed to collect ample evidence against Patil. As many as 12 voice recordings of the meetings between the complainant and Patil are available with the agency.
“While the recordings are from near Khadse’s office or residence but that could also be a ploy by Patil to assert his proximity to the minister before the complainant. We are probing how Patil, who did not hold any government post, managed to convince the complainant that he could help him getting the plot,” added the official.
Khadse has argued that his office had dismissed the revision petition on February 25, 2016, but the complainant and the Opposition have contested this claim.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had earlier said his government won’t interfere in the investigation.
The Opposition is, however, keen to corner the BJP on the issue. Nationalist Congress Party’s Nawab Malik alleged that the CM was pressuring the ACB to scuttle the matter. “Even though the bribe demand was made in the presence of ACB panchas and was verified multiple times, the ACB opted not to lay a trap to nab the accused accepting the bribe red-handed. This would have brought the criminal conspiracy that was hatched to light. In fact, the agency registered an FIR in the matter only after the complainant approached the Maharashtra Lokayukta. The arrest was made on the day the Lokayukta heard the matter and initiated the process of acting on the complaint,” he said.
The Congress contested Khadse’s claim that “the land in question had been valued at Rs 5.54 crore”. Party leader Sachin Sawant claimed the land was worth Rs 151 crore as per ready reckoner rates, and Rs 405 crore based on the going market rate.