Thiruvananthapuram, Nov. 18: There is nothing quite like a free trip. A group of ministers, IAS officers and media persons from Kerala that flew to Britain last week for the Global Kerala Festival has discovered this rather late in the day.
It turns out that their junket was co-sponsored by a scam-tainted NRI businessman, now lodged in a Chennai jail. Antony Joe Kingsley Fernandes, who reportedly owns flats in Hong Kong and London and runs a foreign exchange firm near the airport here, was arrested in Chennai on November 3 for allegedly cheating a businessman and his NRI son of Rs 67 crore.
But even as Fernandes is grilled by the CBI, the free-loaders are having a hard time explaining their trip on their return to India.
Information minister M.M. Hassan, who went to London in his capacity as the non-resident Keralite affairs minister, convened a news conference here today to say neither the A.K. Antony government nor he had anything to do with Fernandes.
“I was invited by the Indian high commission administrative officer T. Haridas… It’s true that one of the invites was in Fernandes’ name. But I have never seen him and I do not know this person.”
Hassan drew a blank when media persons pointed out that Fernandes was in the news in March 1994 when the Enforcement Directorate arrested him for violating the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act and hoarding nearly Rs 262 crore in Swiss banks.
The list of those who joined Hassan on the Fernandes junket reads like a Who’s Who of Kerala. Former chief minister K. Karunakaran’s son and state Congress chief K. Muraleedharan headed to London as did CPM state committee member E.P. Jayarajan. Cooperation Minister M.V. Raghavan, local self-government minister Cherkalam Abdullah and BJP state chief P.S. Sreedharan Pillai were also present.
Editors and senior journalists from major newspapers and TV channels also made it to the Kerala festival. It is learnt that some IAS officers found the junket so attractive that they flew out without a formal clearance from the Centre.
The scam-tainted NRI has twice been seen in privileged company recently. He was around when Union minister Sushma Swaraj launched the Global Kerala Festival website and also when chief minister Antony unveiled the festival logo. Both functions were held in the Kerala capital.
But CBI investigating officer G. Mohanty said in Delhi that he was more concerned with the cheating case involving Fernandes than the London junket.
One Anand, based in Chennai, recently complained to the bureau that Fernandes had misappropriated two tranches of Rs 12.5 crore and Rs 25 crore, collected from his son Mukesh, a British citizen, on the promise of paying him higher interest rates.