In what is acute embarrassment to the already shamed United National Party after the Treasury bond fiasco is another very shocking scandal.
The Minister of Finance, Ravi Karunanayake asked the Director General of Customs Jagath P. Wijeweera to give sweeping duty concessions to his privately owned firm. He flatly refused the demand on the grounds that the country would lose millions of dollars. Because he could not continue to stand undue pressure being brought on him for favours costing millions to the country, Wijeweera tendered his resignation on Monday to Treasury Secretary Dr R.H.S. Samaratunga.
Though Wijeweera said he is quitting due to “personal reasons,” he confessed to close friends in the Customs Department he could not bear Karunanayake’s interference into fiscal matters not only on behalf of his private firm but also various suspicious businessmen. For his private company Global Park which provides warehousing and logistical services he had wanted duty concessions running into millions of dollars granted. Karunanayake had also been in the habit of telephoning Wijeweera almost every day to seek duty waivers, withdrawal of fines and other concessions for several businessmen. He told his friends that he could no longer continue to do things Karunanayake wanted and be answerable for public moneys.
On Monday night, as we reported, Karunanayake announced Wijeweera’s resignation and said the exact reason was not revealed. The Finance Minister claimed that Wijeweera might have resigned due to ongoing investigations to determine the reasons for the considerable loss that had been reported in the Customs Department in the recent past. A senior Customs officer handling revenue told Colombo Telegraph the Customs were now earning a record revenue of five billion rupees a day. The same officer said Wijeweera enjoyed President Sirisena’s confidence, regardless of allegations against him and therefore served in the Assets Recovery Task Force too.
The talking point in Colombo’s private sector, which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has despised as being of no use, is how it was easy to get the UNP Government to get any job done if one got around Finance Minister Karunanayake. Two examples being cited are those of Nissanka Senadhipathi, owner of Avant Garde Maritime Services (who is facing a CID inquiry) and Lalith Kotelawala, Chairman of the Ceylinco Group of Companies. Added to that, Karunanayake has also been personally approaching foreign business concerns with Sri Lankan connections. Both Senadipathi and Kotelawala reportedly made substantial donations fronted reportedly for the UNP to be spent on the general elections. If any went to the UNP and how much it was is not known.
The UPFA opposition was on Tuesday amending their Vote of No Confidence on Finance Minister Karunanayake to include the reasons behind Director General Wijeweera’s resignation. They are also including references to Arjun Aloysius, Karunanayake’s bosom friend and financial supporter. Arjun is the son-in-law of Arjuna Mahendran, a foreigner who is Governor of the Central Bank and at the centre of the Central Bank’s scandalous bond issue. The UPFA opposition says there were five persons who were in the know of the bond issue well in advance – Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Finance Minister Karunanayake, UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, Governor Arjuna Mahendran and Arjun Aloysius.
During the presidential election campaign both Wickremesinghe and Karunanayake shouted loud from political rallies about bribery and corruption by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family. They promised that they would be brought to book. However, after elections, Wickremasinghe directed the Attorney General Yuvanjan Wijetilleka not to arrest Rajapaksa or his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There were a lot of reservations within the UNP when Karunanayake was named Minister of Finance by Wickremasinghe. Many businessmen have been told by top UNP members that Karunanayake was raising funds for the elections but some are dismissing these statements.
UNPers are also shocked that President Maithripala Sirisena, who also spoke out against bribery and corruption is maintaining dead silence. Many reports about Finance Minister Karunanayake’s deals have reached him but no action has been taken. An SLFP Minister said the President was waiting for the COPE report. Members of the COPE sitting daily to inquire into the scandal involving the UNP leadership and Governor Mahendran.