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Sunday, July 30, 2017
BY Kavindya Chris Thomas-2017-07-30
There has never really been what one might call tangible tension since the Presidential Commission of Inquiry began its probe into the Central Bank Treasury Bond issues in January 2017. That changed with this past week's explosive revelations about the former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake (now the Foreign Minister).
There was a pervasive apprehension that 'something big' was going to break at any moment in the process of the Commission's probe because of speculation about a close link between the former Finance Minister (whose name had been commonly linked to the controversial 2015 Central Bank Treasury Bond sales) and the likes of former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran.
However, at this past week's hearings before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, the Minister was, for the first time, openly and directly named, suggesting strongly of a direct involvement in the contentious CB bond deals that supposedly impacted extremely negatively on the finances of the country.
On Monday (25), witness Anika V. Wijesuriya, Director of East West Properties PLC, testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry disclosed that Arjun Aloysius, the owner of the controversial Perpetual Treasuries, had allegedly taken on lease a luxury apartment for six months at a cost of Rs 10.2 million for the former Finance Minister's family and had subsequently purchased it for the minister's family at Rs 165 million.
The luxury apartment in question – a penthouse at Monarch Residences, Colpetty, was to be rented out by its owner in December 2015. In early January 2016, the former Finance Minister and his wife had approached the witness's brother regarding the matter, claiming that the Karunanayake family was searching for an apartment to live in while renovations were being carried out at their residence. Accordingly, the witness testified that she had entered into a lease agreement with a company called Walt and Row (Pvt) Ltd., to which an agreed Rs 7.3 million was transferred by Perpetual Capital Holdings Pvt. Ltd. to be paid to her.
In July 2016, a news item published on websites, highlighting the Karunanayake family occupying a luxury apartment, with the rental paid by Aloysius had allegedly prompted him to call the witness and ask her to destroy her copy of the lease agreement, which she is said to have claimed that she had not done and in fact proceeded to present to the Commission as evidence.
She had later contacted Mrs. Karunanayake and talked about the media reports and their negative impact on her as the owner of the apartment. The witness had asked Mrs. Karunanayake to either purchase the apartment or vacate it considering the circumstances.
However, the witness had allowed the Karunanayake family to occupy the apartment for another two months, since she had the refundable deposit, and because renovations at the Karunanayake residence were not concluded.
Then the witness had called Mr. Aloysius and informed him about the extension of the lease agreement. The witness said the Karunanayake family later conveyed their willingness verbally to buy the apartment and settled on a price of Rs 165 million. She said a firm known as Global Transportation and Logistics Pvt Ltd, of which Mrs. Karunanayake and her daughter Onella were directors, purchased the apartment in September 2016. When questioned by DSG Yasantha Kodagoda, who led the evidence in chief, the witness revealed that Ravi Karunanayake had phoned her father last Saturday prior to testifying at the PCoI.
Following this revelation the Presidential Commission issued summons to the Minister to present himself before its next hearing on the following day to provide an explanation. However, he issued notice through his attorneys that he would not be able to arrive on Tuesday and was rescheduled to arrive on Wednesday (26).
However, by not showing up at the Wednesday hearing, the Minister only added spice to the growing tension. His attorney Rienzie Arseculeratne informed the Commission that the Minister would not be able to appear before them because he had to attend a Security Council meeting.
'More than enough suspicion about who has committed the fraud'
Ceylon Today contacted President's Counsel Hemantha Warnakulasuriya to ascertain what a Presidential Commission of Inquiry can exactly do within its powers, when a Cabinet Minister decides to not respond to its summons to provide evidence.
"The excuse given by the Minister was a fair, legitimate excuse which has been verified as true. Therefore, I don't think that the Minister's excuse is sufficient to blame him for not cooperating with the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. And also, the Presidential Commission has limited powers. The question as to whether a warrant could be issued to arrest him is another matter. So the important thing is that by doing this they have wasted a couple of days. The Commissioners were very concerned about the time that has been allocated and they wanted to call other witnesses, but the State insisted that the Commission should call the Minister first. As a politician, avoiding an appearance before the Commission gives a very wrong impression to the general public. In fact, immediately after Monday's revelation, there was a media event at which Minister Karunanayake quite brazenly claimed that he will be going to the Commission and that he will give evidence. What the Minister could have done through his lawyer was to seek an adjournment of the proceedings to be heard at a later time of that same day. The commissioners would have decided whether to have it or postpone it."
Warnakulasuriya recalled the incident in which Kandy District MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage had categorically stated that he was the first to bring the matter of the Karunanayake's luxury apartment to public attention.
"At that time, Minister Karunanayake vehemently denied any involvement and wanted him to prove it. The Prime Minister himself wanted to report MP Aluthgamage to the Privileges Committee for speaking lies in Parliament. How did the Prime Minister know this was false without an inquiry or even asking Minister Karunanayake? Therefore what is important today is to ensure that when the Government does something wrong, there should be an authority to look into that matter. Here, in this country, you become a culprit, a rogue or an illegal appropriator of public funds only when you're in the Opposition. This is the only time that a Commission was set-up by the President because of the tremendous public agitation that demanded a legitimate probe into this matter."
Nature of offence
He added that after 2 August, when Minister Karunanayake gives evidence what is important and necessary to establish is whether, on the basis of those statements, the offence comes under the Public Properties Act and whether there had been bribery and corruption involved. He assumes that if this is Good Governance, agencies like the Attorney General's Department, the Criminal Investigation Department the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption should immediately start their own investigations on the basis of what has transpired.
"Historically, when the Lalith Athulathmudali Commission started inquiring into the murder of Lalith Athulathmudali, witnesses were brought forward to implicate the UNP's R. Premadasa and Sirisena Cooray in the crime. It was obvious that the witnesses were lying and especially when what they said did not agree with the forensic evidence that was discovered. But the AG's Department decided to arrest the accused. Thus they were arrested and produced before Court on the basis of what transpired at hearings of that Commission. The Magistrate's Court did not reveal any of those things. If the AG's Department could apply this and then ensure that these people are arrested and brought in, that is enough. What is significant is the plausible suspicion. I don't blame the AG's Department. They have to go on the basis of whether any person is concerned in committing an offence or whether there has been any suspicion of committing an offence. Now there is more than enough suspicion about who has committed the fraud in the Treasury Bond case. All the individuals such as Arjuna Mahendran, his son-in-law Arjun Aloysious and all the Ministers must be questioned independently and a report should be filed for investigation. As long as that doesn't happen it clearly shows that this Government is no better than other governments. Then again, are the investigative agencies; are they acting independently? Several earlier complaints have been made at the CIABOC. What happened? Why aren't they inquiring into those complaints?
Asked whether the Minister would not attend the following Wednesday's Commission hearings at which he is expected to provide evidence, PC Warnakulasuriya rather optimistically stated that he believes the minister will show up.
"Now there are claims of denial and that Mondays' witness was lying. However, lawyers of Ravi Karunanayake were there, attorneys of Perpetual Treasuries were there and they did not challenge her and her statement. Therefore, the Commission will have to come to the conclusion, after giving the Minister an opportunity to come before it and give an explanation and he doesn't respond, that he is guilty of all these things.
"Ultimately, this Commission is not a Special Presidential Commission which has powers to recommending, determine people guilty and so on. This Commission is a Commission of Inquiry only. So, the final report has to go to the President and it will be he who gives directions. When you think of what's happening in this country it's very unlikely that anything would happen regarding this matter and ultimately, we'll all be taken for a ride," he opined.