New Delhi, Oct. 4: Launching its first major offensive against the former NDA regime, the Centre today handed investigations into the Tehelka scandal to the CBI and declared the Phukan commission probing it officially defunct.
Union law minister Hans Raj Bharadwaj's announcement marked out George Fernandes as the first target for the probe. 'Fernandes as defence minister allowed his ministerial bungalow to be used or misused for persons to hold negotiations on various defence deals' This will be looked into by the CBI now.'
The move ' the build-up to which began last week after a regular meeting of the 'Friday Group' ' is being seen as an attempt by the UPA government to counter the Opposition fire on its 'tainted ministers'. The 'Friday Group' is an informal team of senior ministers and Congress leaders who meet every week to pick brains and discuss strategy.
With the formal announcement of a CBI probe, the government has also ensured that archival footage showing former BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting money from the Tehelka team is back on television screens during the last leg of campaigning for the Maharashtra elections.
In Pune, Fernandes said the decision to hand the probe to CBI 'is bakwas (humbug) as it tantamounts to showing distrust in Justice Phukan'.
There is speculation that the government's move might lead to the reopening of several other cans of worms.
The Tehelka scandal erupted in March 2001 when reporters from the portal ' posing as arms dealers ' filmed Fernandes' colleague Jaya Jaitly and Laxman negotiating a defence deal with separate groups. While Laxman was caught accepting wads of notes, Jaitly was seen directing proceedings.
'All that are depicted in the tapes... all the visuals... persons connected to and linked to in the tapes will be under the scrutiny of the CBI,' Bharadwaj said.
The minister claimed FIRs had already been filed against Jaitly and Laxman and 'further action' would be taken. Also the 'impropriety of the defence minister allowing access to persons to strike defence deals in his official residence would be investigated.'
Pointing out an inquiry commission was not empowered to go into these matters, he said: 'It (Phukan Commission) has become functious officio (officially defunct) ' report viport kuch nahin.'
A hint that Justice S.. Phukan should wind up his probe fast had come last Friday when the government had insisted that questioning the ethics of carrying out a sting operation fell outside the panel's scope of inquiry.
Bharadwaj alleged 'the NDA government had misdirected the inquiry as it wanted to shield' Fernandes. 'How could a private person (Jaitly) function from the defence ministerial bungalow' Why did the NDA government not probe the minister' he asked.
'The matter will now be probed in detail by CBI in an independent manner and the government will provide it the tapes used in the sting operation conducted by Tehelka.'
Denying that Fernandes had been given a clean chit, Bharadwaj said the fate of the interim Phukan report was 'sealed'. 'The only thing the commission has done so far is to send the tapes for forensic tests abroad which said the tapes were genuine.'
Once the tapes were declared genuine, the panel could not probe the 'motive' of the journalists who did 'great service' by exposing corruption in defence deals, he said.