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Seventeen sitting Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) legislators took bribes from two independent candidates to support them in the 2012 Rajya Sabha polls, three witnesses of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have told a court.
Barring Hemant Soren, now the chief minister of Jharkhand, the legislators received Rs 2.5 crore each — Rs. 1 crore from Pawan Dhoot and Rs 1.5 crore from Raj Kumar Agarwal, the witnesses told Ranchi sub-divisional judicial magistrate in their confessional statements under section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. HT has copies of the statements.
Independent candidates Dhoot and Agarwal did not make it to the Rajya Sabha because the election commission countermanded the polls after the horse-trading charges cropped up.
West Bengal-based businessman Dhoot and Jamshedpur-based industrialist Agarwal could not be reached for comment. Agarwal is in Birsa Munda Central Jail in state capital Ranchi in connection with the cash-for-vote case. Dhoot is on bail. They had earlier denied charges of having tried to buy their way into the Rajya Sabha.
HT tried to contact all 17 MLAs under the scanner, but only five were available for comment. They dismissed the bribe-taking allegations as "baseless".
All three CBI witnesses are closely associated with Jama MLA Sita Soren, who is from the JMM's first family. She is the widow of Durga Soren, Hemant's brother and JMM chief Sibu Soren's eldest son. The CBI has filed a chargesheet against Sita and five others, including Agarwal and Dhoot, in the case.
Vikash Kumar, a witness, is the former personal secretary of Sita. Jaykant Kumar, another witness, is also a close aide of the Jama MLA. Sita's driver Badal Chandra Mahto too recorded his statement before the court.
The case dates back to March 30, 2012, when the income tax department intercepted an SUV on the outskirts of state capital Ranchi and seized Rs 2.15 crore in cash. The election commission cancelled the polls and ordered a CBI probe following the haul.
In his statement, Vikash, 29, said that two weeks before the seizure, the JMM legislators, barring Hemant, had met at legislator Nalin Soren's house. Nalin, an accused in the multi-crore seed scam in 2009, was the JMM chief whip for the Rajya Sabha polls.
According to Vikash, Agarwal called the meeting. The legislators decided to vote in Agarwal's favour after he offered them Rs 1.5 crore each.
Vikash also said Dhoot sent his agent, Sunil Maheshwari, to Ranchi and offered Rs 2.5 crore each to the JMM legislators. Maheshwari handed over Rs 1 crore and a BlackBerry to each of the MLAs, according to Vikash. Other witnesses said Sita collected her entire share of Rs 2.5 crore.
Vikash told the court that prior to the payment from Maheshwari, the legislators had met at Nalin's official residence on March 17 and decided to cast their first and second preferential votes for the two independent candidates.
The next day, Vikash said, the MLAs assembled again at Nalin's house, where Agarwal paid them Rs 50 lakh each for becoming his proposers. "Sita Soren too received the money."
He added that on the last day of filing nominations (March 19), some of the legislators signed a document supporting Agarwal. According to Vikash, afraid of disciplinary action, the MLAs holding ministerial berths in the then BJP-JMM coalition government did not sign the document.
The JMM had fielded its own candidate, Sanjiv Kumar, for the elections. The JMM ministers later became Kumar's proposers.
"The legislators, on March 29, 2012 (a day before the elections), assembled at Nalin Soren's residence to take the remaining Rs 1 crore (from Agarwal). While some of them received the amount at the parking lot of Radisson Blu hotel, others collected it from Nalin Soren's residence. Sita Soren had personally come down to the hotel to collect her share," Vikash said.
Asked about the allegations, Nalin told HT that being the party's chief whip, meetings were held at his residence. "No money was distributed from my house."
Ex-minister and legislator Mathura Mahto said, "I never met Agarwal and Dhoot. Meetings were held at Nalin Soren's and my residences, but we discussed about our party's candidate. I have never been at Radisson Blu."
MLA Vidyut Baran Mahto admitted Agarwal was his childhood friend, but denied taking money from him.
The CBI had recently informed the court that it had closed the investigation in the case, paving way for commencement of trial.
The agency's deputy superintendent of police and investigating officer, AK Jha, told HT further probe might be conducted if required.