Air India deal — ED’s next charge against PC

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New Delhi, Aug 26 (IANS) As former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram faces a tough time in CBI custody over his alleged involvement in INX Media case, more troubles is brewing for him, with Enforcement Directorate trying to make a watertight case against the Congress leader in the Rs 70,000-crore Air India deal case, sources said on Monday.

The Air India deal pertains to the alleged wrongdoing in the purchase of 111 aircraft for Air India — 43 aircraft from Airbus and 68 from Boeing — during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2007.

Sources said the ED wants to question Chidambaram in the deal as he cleared the purchase of aircraft while heading an empowered group of ministers that finalized the deal. It is alleged that Chidambaram had given the nod to purchase more aircraft from Airbus and Boeing than the initial requirement pegged at 43 and 24 aircraft, said a source with direct knowledge of the deal.

The ED is in the process of collecting more evidence about the money trail leading up to the shell companies having links to Chidambaram during the process of the deal, the source said.

The ED had summoned Chidambaram for questioning in the Air India case earlier but could not question him as he was under the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) custody after his arrest on August 21 night in alleged money laundering involving INX Media case.

The ED has learnt about 17 shell companies and over 10 overseas properties owned by Chidambaram and his son Karti during its probe in the INX Media case. The agency is trying to ascertain how the money was routed to these firms obtained from the Air India deal.

The source said there are several persons on the financial probe agency radar who acted as the ‘benami’ directors of these shell companies. The source indicated that Chidambaram and his son had changed the share holding pattern of the shell companies to make tracking of the money trail more complex.

“These shell companies were incorporated at the behest of Chidambaram,” the source said. The ED probe has highlighted how the persons connected with the shell companies have executed a will in favour of Chidambaram’s granddaughter.

The shell firms were allegedly used to receive bribes for the illegal Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearances given by Chidambaram during his tenure as the Finance Minister in alleged connivance with his son. The ED probe has reportedly found that “kickbacks received by Chidambaram and his son through the shell firms were used to meet their personal expenses”.

The agency, the source said, has gathered evidence that a shell firm linked to Karti received “huge payments” from a British Virgin Islands-based firm that also figured in the global data leaks of foreign share holding of various entities, also known as Panama Papers.

The ED has earlier questioned former Aviation Minister and senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Praful Patel in the case. The source said Patel maintained during his questioning that all the decisions were collective. In December 2005, the Manmohan Singh cabinet had approved the deal for 68 aircraft from Boeing by Air India. A year later, Indian Airlines signed the deal to buy 43 planes from Airbus SE.

The two national carriers were later merged in 2007 to operate under the brand Air India, which, too, is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

In May 2017, following an order from the Supreme Court, the CBI registered three cases and a preliminary inquiry into the alleged irregularities. The CBI is investigating allegations of aircraft being leased “without due consideration” and whether Air India surrendered profitable routes to private national and international private airlines, allegedly adding to its vast losses.

The ED took cognizance of the CBI’s First Information Report (FIR) and started money laundering probe in the cases. Chidambaram, whose role is also being investigated by the ED in two separate money laundering cases of Aircel-Maxis and INX Media, will be questioned in the alleged aviation scam which includes charges against public servants for making state-run Air India give up profitable routes and slots in favour of local and foreign private carriers.

Corporate lobbyist Deepak Talwar has been arrested in the case on allegation of securing profitable air traffic rights to three international airlines using his proximity with Praful Patel. The agency has filed a chargesheet in the case.

The ED is also waiting for the details of Chidambaram’s shell firms regarding which the CBI on Friday sent Letter Rogatory to five countries — the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Bermuda, Mauritius and Singapore — seeking details of sush companies allegedly floated as well as bank account details.

(Anand Singh and Rajnish Singh can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected])

–IANS

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