Thiruvananthapuram: The inordinate delay in the submission of the final report absolving former finance minister K M Mani of charges in the bar bribery case occurred as the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB), understandably at the CPM’s instance, waited till the conclusion of the CPI state conference, it was learnt.
The Chief Minister’s Office had reportedly given an instruction to the VACB to put the report on hold in order to stop the CPI, who have been vehemently opposing the move to take Mani into the LDF fold, from using the report as a political weapon to attack the CPM at its state conference. The instruction was passed on to the VACB officials in charge of the case through former VACB director Lokanath Behera.
After the high court gave the vigilance team 45 days to submit the report on Mani, the VACB adopted a wait and watch policy as the CPM, the main constituent of the ruling coalition, was well aware of the fact that the move to give clean chit to Mani, who has been apparently cosying up to the LDF, would invite the wrath of CPI and the matter would be discussed at length at the latter's state conference, which was concluded in Malappuram on Sunday.
Remarkably, the VACB never before had given three successive reprieves to any accused in corruption cases in the past.
Two of those reports were submitted during the tenure of the previous UDF government. R Sukesan, SP (Vigilance), the officer in charge of the SIT initially, who favoured Mani citing lack of evidence in his report, however, did a U-turn following the regime change and filed a petition seeking further probe alleging that former VACB director N Shanker Reddy had intervened in the investigation to give Mani clean chit.
Sukesan, who faced a Crime Branch probe for the alleged conspiracy in the investigation, was however cleared of charges and was subsequently included in the list for IPS conferment by the LDF government in 2016.
The case against Mani was registered by the Vigilance in December 2014 on a complaint filed by bar owner and Kerala Bar Hotel Association (KBHA) working president Biju Ramesh who alleged that the minister had demanded a bribe of Rs 10 crore for the renewal of bar licences. After preliminary investigation, Sukesan had claimed that there was circumstantial evidence to prove the allegation. It set the stage for a shakeup at the top of the VACB, with ADGP Jacob Thomas getting replaced by N Shankar Reddy. Following that ADGP (Vigilance) Sheikh Darvesh Sahib recommended against proceeding with filing of charge-sheet in the case. In July 2015, the VACB submitted a report in the special court claiming that there was no substantial evidence to proceed with the case.
However, the court ordered further investigation after the then leader of the opposition V S Achuthanandan and 10 others approached the court against the move to ‘scuttle’ the case. In February 2016, the agency submitted another report which also stated that there was no evidence to indict Mani.
After the LDF came into power, Jacob Thomas was appointed the VACB director. Meanwhile, Sukesan, contradicting his original findings, submitted a fresh report in the court claiming that there was substantial evidence against the accused, but he was forced to give a report in Mani’s favour due to political pressure.
Based on that report, the court once again ordered a detailed probe in the case. During the course of the investigation, Jacob Thomas was transferred and Sukesan retired from service. Behera was given the additional charge of VACB director and the third and final report, that too reiterated that there was no evidence to criminally indict Mani for graft, was submitted thereafter.
When Mani was given two reprieves previously, V S Achuthanandan, LDF convenor Vaikom Viswan and CPI leader V S Sunil Kumar had taken the lead to oppose those reports. Going by the current political scenario, the CPM or Achuthanandan are unlikely to intervene in the issue. The BJP, who is also trying to woo Mani, might also refrain from commenting on the latest development. So, the stance adopted by the CPI and Biju Ramesh, the de facto complainant in the case, is going to be crucial.