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CBI books Karti Chidambaram for 'facilitating' visas of Chinese nationals after illegal gratification

CBI books Karti Chidambaram for facilitating visas of Chinese nationals after illegal gratification
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New Delhi: The CBI has registered a fresh case against Lok Sabha member Karti Chidambaram for allegedly facilitating visas of 263 Chinese nationals for a power company after receiving Rs 50 lakh as bribe 11 years ago when his father P Chidambaram was the Union home minister, officials said on Tuesday.

CBI teams conducted coordinated search operations at 10 locations in multiple cities in the country, including residences of the Chidambarams in Chennai and Delhi early morning.

The searches were carried after the agency registered an FIR on May 14 against Karti, his close associate S Bhaskararaman, the then associate vice president of Talwandi Sabo power project Vikas Makharia, who allegedly offered the bribe, Talwandi Sabo Power Limited (TSPL), Mumbai-based Bell Tools Limited through which bribes were alleged routed under IPC 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 477A(falsification of accounts) and section 8 and 9 of Prevention of Corruption Act, they said.

While the CBI has listed "unknown public servant (s) and private person (s)" as sixth accused in the FIR, the agency has alleged in its FIR that "...there is reason to believe that the then home secretary (R K Singh) and home minister (Chidambaram) were in the knowledge of the matter of TSPL and work of TSPL was done through them but it is not ascertained at this stage whether. Shri P Chidambaram, the then home minister and the then home secretary were in the knowledge of" the demand and payment of illegal gratification or not.

Singh, who was home secretary from June 30, 2011 to June 30, 2013, later joined the BJP after his retirement and is now a union minister.

Tuesday's searches spread across multiple locations in Chennai, Mumbai, Koppal (Karnataka), Jharsuguda (Odisha), Mansa (Punjab) and Delhi.

"I have lost count, how many times has it been? Must be a record," Karti tweeted immediately after the CBI raids without specifying.

Later, he further tweeted that his office has updated him about the searches. "My office has just updated on the 'record' twice in 2015, once in 2017, twice in 2018 and today :) 6!"

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram, in his tweets in Hindi and English, said a CBI team searched his residence in Chennai and his official residence in Delhi.

"The team showed me an FIR in which I am not named as an accused. The search team found nothing and seized nothing," he said, adding, "I may point out that the timing of the search is interesting." However, he did not mention what "timing" he was referring to.

In the new case, which is an offshoot of an ongoing probe in the INX media case, the CBI has alleged that Karti had allegedly received Rs 50 lakh bribe through Bhaskararaman to facilitate the visa of 263 Chinese nationals during the UPA regime for TSPL, a Vedanta Group company, in July-August 2011, when his father was the Union home minister, the officials said.

"The searches at our Punjab facility have been part of a larger CBI investigation. We are extending full cooperation to the authorities and facilitating the due process. We have no further comments," a TSPL spokesperson said.

The CBI had stumbled upon some documents showing suspicious transactions based on which the agency had registered a preliminary enquiry on March 7 this year.

The agency has alleged that the Punjab-based TSPL was setting up a 1980 MW thermal power plant and the work was out-sourced to a Chinese company Shandong Electric Power Construction Corp (SEPCO).

The project was running behind its schedule and the company was allegedly facing prospects of penalty, CBI spokesperson R C Joshi said in a statement.

"In order to avoid penal actions for the delay, the said private company (TSPL) of Mansa was trying to bring more and more Chinese persons and professionals for their site at district Mansa (Punjab) and needed Project visas over and above the ceiling imposed by Ministry of Home Affairs," Joshi said.

The CBI FIR, which contains a findings of the investigating officer who probed the PE, has alleged Makharia approached Karti through his "close associate/front man" Bhaskararaman, officials said.

"They devised a back-door way to defeat the purpose of ceiling (maximum of Project visas permissible to the company's plant) by granting permission to re-use 263 Project visas allotted to the said Chinese company's officials," Joshi said.

Project visas were special type of visa introduced in 2010 for power and steel sector for which detailed guidelines were issued during Chidambaram's tenure as home minister but there was no provision of re-issue of project visas, the FIR alleged.

"As per prevalent guidelines, deviation in rare and exceptional cases could be considered and granted only with the approval of the Home Secretary. However, in view of the above circumstances, the deviation in terms of re-use of project visas is likely to be approved by the then Home Minister...," the FIR alleged.

Makharia allegedly submitted a letter to the Home Ministry on July 30, 2011 seeking approval to re-use the project visas allotted to his company, which was approved within a month and permission was issued, officials said.

"On August 17, 2011, Makharia, on being directed by Bhaskararaman, sent a copy of the above a letter dated July 30, 2011 to him through e-mail which was forwarded to Karti...Bhakaskararaman after discussion with P Chidambaram, the then Home Minister, demanded an illegal gratification of Rs. 50 Lakhs for ensuring the approval," the FIR has alleged.

The FIR has alleged that the payment of said bribe was routed from TSP to Karti and Bhaskararaman through Mumbai-based Bell Tools Ltd with payments camoflagued under two invoices raised for consultancy and out of pocket expenses for Chinese visas related works, the CBI FIR said adding that Makharia had later thanked Karti and Bhaskararaman on email.

Payment against the invoices were made by TSPL to Bell Tools Limited through cheque and then the said amount was paid in cash to Bhaskararaman, the FIR alleged.

"... Whereas the private company based at Mumbai was never in any kind of work relating to visas rather it was in an entirely different business of industrial knives," Joshi said.

"Information exists that Chidambaram had been on the board of Vedanta Group whereas his son Karti had taken financial favour from Sterlite Optical Technologies Limited, Mumbai (a Vedanta Group Company), which had lent Rs 1.5 Crore in November, 2003 to his company namely Meltraack India Limited, Chennai and the interest thereupon was waived-off in August 2004 (when...P Chidambaram sworn as the Finance Minister,...)," it alleged.

The CBI alleged that Karti and his front-man Bhaskararaman were indulged in collection of undue payments for settling the issues pending with the offices under the influence of Chidambaram as minister in various ministries.

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