In February this year, CBI Director Ranjit Sinha overruled his agency colleagues to say there was no reason to prosecute Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Darda, his son Devendra Darda, former Coal Minister Santosh Bagrodia and former Coal Secretary H C Gupta in the coal blocks allocation scam.
Vijay Darda had written to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pushing for a coal block in Bander, Chhattisgarh, to AMR Iron and Steel Pvt Ltd, which transferred Rs 24.6 crore to a firm owned by Darda’s son after AMR got the block.
On receipt of Sinha’s objections, the CBI’s Additional Legal Advisor, who had previously recommended prosecution, did a U-turn and cleared the Dardas. Barely two months later, Sinha himself did a startling U-turn and gave orders to file a chargesheet against the Dardas, this time citing the same arguments he had once vehemently objected to.
The chargesheet was filed on March 27 this year against the Dardas and AMR director Manoj Jayaswal. This curious flip-flop-flip coincides with visits of Devendra Darda to the Sinha residence, according to a close scrutiny of logbook entries and CBI records related to AMR accessed by The Indian Express.
These raise questions regarding Sinha’s assessment of the Darda case. Between February 2 and February 14, 2014, Devendra Darda made five visits to the Sinha residence. This period coincides with detailed debates within the CBI before recommending prosecution against the Darda duo, former coal minister Santosh Bagrodia, former coal secretary H C Gupta and Jayaswal.
Incidentally, two other firms of Jayaswal also got a coal block each. All three allotments were under the CBI scanner but it was only the one to AMR on which the agency unanimously recommended prosecution — cases related to the other two allotments were closed.
The CBI’s key allegations against AMR: Vijay Darda tried to influence the outcome of coal block allotment by writing letters in favour of AMR to the Prime Minister who was the then coal minister; his son Devendra Darada represented AMR in Screening Committee that allotted coal misrepresenting as Director of the company and gave misleading information to the committee; a Jayaswal firm gave an unsecured loan of Rs 24.6 crore to a Darda company.
In addition, the CBI also claimed that it had found evidence that while settling a “family feud,” Jayaswal in July 2008 made a provision for 26% shares of “coal block applicant companies to the person who is instrumental in getting the (Bander) Coal Block allotted”. The CBI also claimed to have records of meetings at various locations between Darda and Jayaswal.
The case recommending chargesheet against Darda and others was sent to Sinha on February 4. Significantly, on February 2 and February 3, Devendra spent 20 minutes and 15 minutes respectively at Sinha’s residence, according to the visitor’s logbook. In total, he made nine visits between February 2 — this was his first visit since the logbook was opened in May 2013 — and March 28. CBI records show this is same period in which it changed its stand several times before filing the chargesheet.
On February 13, Sinha wrote a strong rebuttal to the findings of his officers. Devendra Darda met Sinha at two more occasions between February 4 and February 13. Sinha made five key observations countering the arguments of his officers. He said that the case was built merely on “circumstantial evidence;” there was nothing wrong in Devendra Darda attending the screening committee meeting on behalf of AMR because he had disclosed this fact; there was no evidence to link the 24.6-crore payment with the allotment of the coal block; anyways this money was paid back with interest (significantly, this fact was not mentioned anywhere in the file).
Devendra Darda met Sinha at his residence twice on March 11 and March 13. Despite Sinha’s objections, CBI’s senior counsel Amarendra Sharan got back on March 18 saying the case was fit for prosecution. To which Sinha responded by sending it back to the agency’s law officer.
“I have gone through the opinion of (Sharan) and observe that he had not expressed any definite opinion in the light of moments made by me. The case may, therefore, be again looked into by ALA (Additional Legal Advisor) authorized by the SC (Supreme Court) for giving his opinion based on merit of the case and observations made by the special counsel”, Sinha said on March 20.
In his note on March 24, the ALA reversed his earlier stand to say “that no criminal case has been made out against the MoS (Coal), Secretary and other public servants. Consequently this would also be applicable to the private parties (the Dardas and Jayaswal) as no conspiracy has been established.” Two days later, came the key U-turn by Sinha himself.
“This is a monitored case of Hon/ble Supreme Court,” he wrote and then strongly rebutted himself. So contrary to his earlier view that there was no link between the allotment and transfer of funds from Jayaswal to Darda, he now said: “…the letters, the transfer of funds and the indenture reveals that Shri Vijay Darda exercised his personal influence, whether named or otherwise, in getting the Coal Block allocated in favor of M/s AMR”. He also questioned how Devendra Darda could attend the screening committee meeting. The very next day, the chargesheet was filed.
When asked why he met Darda during the decision-making process, Sinha said: “If I was to help them, I would have dropped the case but I went and chargesheeted them.” Asked why he took a U-turn, he said: “I had a careful relook at the file.” Devendra Darda did not reply to a text message sent on Monday.