UPA 2’s AgustaWestland probe moved at a snail’s pace
Documentary evidence in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal reveals that the then defence minister, AK Antony, approved a ban on procurement from all companies, including the Finmeccanica group, only on the last day of polling of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Antony’s last-minute action of May 12, 2014 came days before a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took over in New Delhi and five months after the contract to purchase a dozen AW101 helicopters was terminated on January 1, 2014. The Central Bureau of Investigation had filed its First Information Report (FIR) in connection with the deal on March 12, 2013.
The order banning procurement was issued on July 3, 2014 by then defence minister Arun Jaitley. The preceding UPA government signed the 556.26-million-euro helicopter contract on February 8, 2010, with an advance component of 45%, or 250.32 million euro.
Between reports of an Italian probe into graft charges against Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland, and the CBI’s first report of March 2013, the company supplied three helicopters which lie mothballed with the Indian Air Force (IAF) to this day. This delay, also attributable to a secrecy clause and legal stonewalling in Italy, led to the recovery of only 199.7 million euros of the advance after the contract was cancelled.
Top defence ministry sources told Hindustan Times that 50.7 million euros are still being held back by the company as part of proportionate payment for the three helicopters supplied. Apart from the advance money, only three guarantees worth 55 million euros held by three banks on behalf of the manufacturer have been recovered.
The Congress has rejected the accusations. Congress leader and former Union minister Anand Sharma told mediapersons last week: “Action was taken by the UPA government.
AK Antony, the then defence minister had made a statement in Parliament and AgustaWestland was blacklisted. A probe was ordered by the UPA government – both by the ED and the CBI.”
Sharma went on to say that instead of putting the probe on the fast track, the Modi government had removed AgustaWestland from the blacklisted category so that it “could bid for some projects of Navy as part of the Prime Minister’s Make in India programme”.
“What prompted the BJP government to reverse the decision of blacklisting?” he asked, insisting that the UPA government had been proactive in the probe once it came to know that some corruption was involved. “We took the matter to the Milan court, to the Naples prosecutor,” he said. On Saturday, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said: “There is no magic wand. We were the ones who had started the process of blacklisting.”
Documents accessed by Hindustan Times show, however, that the UPA government was stirred into action only by the February 12, 2013 arrest of Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi in Italy. Delays continued to plague the government’s reaction. Even after the CBI filed its first FIR, it did not immediately forward the report to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) despite it being mandated by the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) that a similar report be filed by the ED for investigations. In fact, the ED wrote to the CBI on June 18, 2013, asking for the bureau’s FIR.
The ED got the report only on December 11, 2013; again there was no apparent action from the directorate till the Modi government assumed office. A case in the helicopter deal under the PMLA was registered by the ED only in July 2014.
The ED got into action on September 22, 2014 with a raid on businessman and lawyer Gautam Khaitan, suspected to be the main actor in the laundering and routing of kickbacks in the deal. He was arrested a day later.
The provisional attachment of properties was started: property valued at Rs 14.70 crore of Gautam Khaitan and his company; Rs 6.21 crore of the co-accused Tyagi brothers, and Rs 1.11 crore of alleged middleman Christian Michel James in India was attached till March 19, 2015. Letters of request for conducting investigations have been sent to seven countries and three more are in process. An extradition request was sent to the UK for Christian Michel James, allegedly the main conduit for the kickbacks, on January 4, 2016.
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar pulled up the IAF this month for failing to provide to the ED property details of eight of 13 senior officers said to be involved in the decision-making process that selected AugustaWestland helicopters.