CUSTOMS SCANDAL SHADOW ON POWER HUB 

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By FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 2.04.01
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New Delhi, April 2 :    New Delhi, April 2:  First armsgate, then the stock market scam and now the customs scandal. Another powerful official presiding over a huge bureaucratic empire and handling thousands of crores of public money was swept up in the scam-a-week routine when B.P. Verma, customs and excise chief, was arrested today. Verma and son Siddharth were picked up by the CBI from their Hudco Place government residence at Andrews Ganj in South Delhi. Two other associates of Verma, Bhavna Pandey and Shrivanam, a partner in the Chennai-based export firm, A.K. Enterprises, were also arrested. All have been charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Indian Penal Code. The CBI is also considering charging Verma for acquiring wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income. Verma, remanded in CBI custody for five days, was admitted to a hospital here after he complained of breathing problems. The arrests followed questioning of Siddharth and his business partner Rohit Jain yesterday. Verma himself allegedly did not co-operate with the CBI, which tried to question him yesterday. As in armsgate, questions are being raised about the decision-making process in government since Verma's appointment as chairman of Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) had gone through even though there was a vigilance case against him. It is learnt that the Central Vigilance Commission chief, N. Vittal, had written to the then finance secretary, Piyush Mankad, about eight months ago, recommending that Verma should not be appointed because of irregularities committed by him when he was posted in Calcutta in the early nineties. A former official of the finance ministry, now holding a powerful post-retirement job, is said to have cleared Verma's name last year for the post. Verma concurrently held the post of director-general of economic intelligence (customs and excise). "A very powerful officer in the highest echelons of the bureaucracy did the string-pulling. Vigilance clearance is a must for appointment to such posts," a government source said. Responsibility for his appointment, however, rests with the country's highest decision-makers since the final approval was given by the appointments committee of the Cabinet. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, home minister L.K. Advani and finance minister Yashwant Sinha are members of that committee. However, Sinha told a TV channel tonight: "There was nothing on record against Verma which could have prevented his promotion." The vigilance case against Verma relates to his going out of the way to favour two Calcutta-based firms - Sunny Exports and Everest Exports - by charging only 25 per cent customs duty on certain imported goods which otherwise would be levied 300 per cent. Investigations by the CBI, which has been watching the movements of Verma and his associates from February, have led the sleuths on to a sex-and-sleaze angle. "He (Verma) was closely involved with 12 women who appear to have been favoured in cash and kind," a senior official said. "Bhavna Pandey was a key figure in the ring." These women were based in Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad and other cities. Pandey and several others of the dozen women were under CBI surveillance. Sources said he is also closely associated with an influential Uttar Pradesh politician. The CBI questioned Rohit Jain throughout the day. Both Jain and Siddharth, who studied in a public school in Delhi and later graduated from a prestigious college in Calcutta before undergoing training as a pilot, owned "shell" companies, including Jubilee Enterprises and Jubilee Medicare. There is a stink of money- laundering in the business ventures of Verma, his son and their associates. The CBI believes that K. Vijay Pratap was the principal conduit for the money that passed into Verma's hands. Vijay Pratap had handed over Rs 2 crore to Siddharth at a hotel on March 23. The CBI has recovered documents suggesting Verma acquired several lakhs that are not accounted for. During Saturday's raids on Verma's residence and other locations, CBI found papers indicating assets worth Rs 24 lakh in investments in UTI and LIC, Rs 24 lakh of jewellery, Rs 1.4 lakh cash, $1,500 in foreign exchange, household goods totalling Rs 16 lakh, besides a bank balance of Rs 7 lakh.