Investigating the 2016 wedding of the daughter of its Special Director Rakesh Asthana in Vadodara, the agency has questioned close to a dozen people and received replies from at least four hotels on expenses made and facilities provided.
A perusal of these replies and CBI documents shows that several venues were availed by the Asthana family on “complimentary” basis. However, catering and other services at the venues were paid for in cheques or through credit cards.
The case is being investigated by a team under Additional Director A K Sharma who, like Asthana, is a Gujarat cadre officer. The hotels and venues probed by his team include The Laxmi Vilas Palace, Hotel Express Towers, Suncity Club and Resort and Surya Palace Hotel.
The investigations also connect Asthana to Chetan Sandesara, a fugitive in the Rs 5,000-crore loan default case being probed by CBI. However, at the time of the wedding, Sandesara was not facing any probe by the agency.
According to documents, the wedding was organised over two days in 2016 with the Sangeet ceremony being held on November 24 and the wedding a day later. The Sangeet ceremony was held at a farm house owned by Chetan Sandesara near Vadodara.
CBI documents state that the catering for this event was provided by Hotel Express Towers which did not charge anything. “Mr Chandra Mehta, employee and close confidant of Chetan Sandesara contacted Shri Nirav Gandhi (Director of the hotel) for organising the function… He was directed by Chetan Sandesara not to discuss the expenses part with Mr Nirav Gandhi as the same was handled by Chetan Sandesara,” a CBI report on the matter said.
In a signed document provided to CBI, the Hotel Express Towers said, “We were only supplying food at the event and no other services were provided… The function was done on complimentary basis so no bill was raised for the Sangeet Sandhya held on 24/11/2016.”
Sources close to Asthana, however, said that the family only availed of “service staff” from the hotel and catering was actually done by one Manish Thakker of Labh Decorators. Since providing a few waiters was hardly an expense for the hotel, it gave the same as complimentary. “Thakker was paid in full through a cheque,” a source close to the Asthana family said.
CBI documents do show at least two payments — of Rs 9.55 lakh and Rs 8 lakh — made to Thakker for his various services which included decoration for the wedding ceremony. Despite repeated attempts, Nirav Gandhi was not available for comment.
The wedding ceremony, according to CBI documents, was organised on November 25 at the Sunken Garden, The Lakshmi Vilas Palace, the home of the erstwhile royalty of the Gaekwads. In its reply to the CBI, The Laxmi Vilas Palace has said that the venue was provided to the Asthana family on complimentary basis.
Shaji Siddiqui, General Manager of Laxmi Vilas Palace Banquet said, “I am not authorised to speak to the media on this issue.” A call made to the Palace office was answered by a woman who identified herself as the “Secretary to the Maharaja” and said the palace office had nothing to do with it.
Sources close to the Asthana family said the venue was arranged through “social connections” of Asthana who was Commissioner of Police of Vadodara between 2008 and 2011. “That venue is often given by the owners for private parties,” the sources said.
The documents show that catering for the wedding was handled by Vadodara’s oldest five star hotel The Grand Mercure Surya Palace. The documents do not show the payment made for this. However, sources said that Asthana’s wife picked the bill of “more than Rs 10 lakh” for a guest list of up to 1,200 that attended the wedding, from across the country. “The bills were made in her name”, said the source. The CBI team collected all these receipts and invoices as evidence.
Owner of the Hotel, Piyush Shah, did not respond to calls from The Indian Express.
The decoration for the wedding was provided by Manish Thakker who billed Asthana in excess of Rs 17.55 lakh. When his comment was sought, Thakker promised to call back but did not. He had earlier declined to comment.
Sunil Naik, the light and music vendor for the wedding, said, “I provided lighting for the function, but we are sub-contractors hired by Manish Thakker. The payment for our services were made by Asthana Sir through a cheque. The CBI has already probed the matter and checked all the bills. They have even questioned Manish bhai and made enquiries at the Lakshmi Vilas Hotel. Everything has been cleared.”
Apart from this, the Asthana family also booked 35 rooms for two days in the Sun City Club and Resort in Vadodara. In its reply to CBI, the club said it provided the rooms on “complimentary basis”. “As our resort was new at that time — even before we had launched the resort — we found it as an honor to host such prestigious guests to make them stay at our property and thus we offered it all on complimentary basis,” it said in its reply.
It is owned by Samir Shah and is currently being managed by Manish Thakker. Siddharth Vora, General Manager of the Suncity Club, when contacted by The Indian Express said, “CBI officials had come here a few days back to make enquiries. All the necessary details have been given to them.”
The CBI has also claimed in its report that a BMW car and a Honda CRV were used by the Asthana family during the function. It says the vehicle was provided by Sandeep Barot, transport in-charge of Chetan Sandesara.
Incidentally, Asthana has already written to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), complaining that Additional Director A K Sharma had set up a team to conduct a roving enquiry on his family and to find a way to connect him to Sandesaras. He said that his family is being snooped upon and officers not authorised to make enquiries have been put on the job.