By Amrit Muttukumaru –
The media reports that Central Bank (CBSL) Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy will be ‘resigning’ with effect from 20 December. Being held in high esteem by the intelligentsia and elite circles of this country, much was expected from him after he was appointed Governor on 3 July 2016. This was particularly so after the controversial exit of Arjuna Mahendran in the aftermath of the egregious Treasury bond scam in the context of the CBSL being the issuing agency.
The jury is still out whether there was a marked improvement in the image of the CBSL in view of the EU ‘Blacklist’ on Sri Lanka for money laundering almost 19 months after Coomaraswamy took office. The EU ‘Blacklist’ was subsequent to the ‘Financial Action Task Force’ (FATF) placing the country on its ‘Grey List’ from November 2017. FATF recommendations are “recognised as the global anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorist financing (CFT) standard.” Although Sri Lanka was removed from the FATF ‘Grey List’ last month (October 2019), it is not clear whether the country continues to be on the EU ‘Blacklist’. While Coomaraswamy must bear some responsibility (together with Messrs. Cabraal and Mahendran) for these strictures, he must bear major responsibility for the country continuing to be in this position at least until October 2019.
While wishing him well in his retirement, this writer believes that it is fair to state that overall the tenure of Coomaraswamy as CBSL Governor could be considered a disappointment for reasons that will be made clear in this article. Clarification from him is awaited. These include:
Hiding Forensic Audits
It is shameful that the CBSL has reportedly sought the approval of the Attorney-General to release to the public domain its long delayed ‘Forensic Audit’ of the egregious Treasury Bond scam on the premise that it “could influence the upcoming presidential election” (‘Sunday Times’ 3 November). Is this not the very reason it should have been in the public domain to enable voters to make informed decisions? I ask Coomaraswamy (i) Is the AG’s Department more competent than the CBSL on the subject of issuance of Treasury Bonds? (ii) Does not the CBSL have the independence to place the forensic audits in the public domain?
The forensic audit was a key recommendation of the report of the Presidential Commission on the bond scams which was available in the public domain from 3 January 2018. It is only after a protracted delay of 22 months that the audits have been completed. Now that the long delayed forensic audit has been completed, the CBSL is stalling its presentation by the shameful recourse to seeking the approval of the Attorney-General!
No one with fiduciary responsibility with access to official data on the 27 February 2015 and March 2016 bond scams has credibly quantified the loss incurred by the government and the people. Various ‘unofficial’ estimates have indicated astronomical losses. As the issuing agency for Treasury Bonds, should it not have proactively engaged the attention of the CBSL long before a Presidential Commission had ordered it?
Dr. Coomaraswamy was appointed CBSL Governor on 3 July 2016. It was under his watch that the contentious ‘Foreign Exchange Act, No. 12 of 2017’ was enacted on 28 July 2017 and became effective from 20 November 2017 – 16 months after he took office.
The Act inter alia states “The Central Bank shall as the agent of the Government, be responsible for implementing the provisions of this Act”.
This Act which repealed the ‘Exchange Control Act No. 24 of 1953’ further liberalizes foreign exchange transactions and in effect is conducive for money laundering if people are so inclined. In the context of the absence of the political will to enforce even existing laws and regulations on a level playing field, is it not downright dangerous to have such an Act in the statute book?
A precursor to this dangerous Foreign Exchange Act is the ‘invitation’ issued by then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake through India’s prestigious publication ‘The Hindu’ of 5 October 2015 to “Sri Lankans and Indians who had to take back their deposits from banks in Switzerland to place their funds in Sri Lanka”. He had further assured that “No questions would be asked”!
Politically Exposed Persons
In the context of Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) being at the centre of the worldwide efforts for the prevention of money laundering, where else in the world would (i) a Senior Deputy Governor of the Central Bank soon after retirement be appointed a Director of a leading bank? (ii) a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court soon after retirement be appointed a Director of a leading bank? (iii) a highly connected PEP previously Chairman of a leading bank be currently Chairman of a competitor bank?
It is now more than three years since the ‘International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ (ICIJ) in a worldwide exposé named persons in several countries including Sri Lanka allegedly linked to offshore companies in tax havens revealed in the ‘Panama Papers’.
While not suggesting that the mere listing of names and entities in tax havens is indicative of wrongdoing, it must be appreciated that until the accounts are determined legitimate, they will remain suspect and the persons concerned ‘not fit and proper’ to hold any position of trust involving the Public.
A name included in the ‘Panama Papers’ is an erstwhile colleague of Coomaraswamy on the Director Board of JKH arguably the country’s most diversified conglomerate with top tier market capitalization. This person from 1 January 2019 has assumed the position of Chairman of JKH. Until this date he was Chairman of a Bank controlled by JKH. Did ‘conflict of interest’ have a role in the inaction of CBSL’s Bank Supervision Department?
Coomaraswamy was a Board Director of JKH for more than 5 years from 7 February 2011 until his resignation on 3 July 2016 subsequent to his appointment as CBSL Governor. Unless he functioned pro bono, he would have received pecuniary benefits from this office.
It beggars belief that CBSL under Coomaraswamy has the audacity to cite the new and contentious ‘Foreign Exchange Act, No. 12 of 2017’ to justify inaction on the Sri Lankan names in the Panama Papers:
“The time period prescribed by the Foreign Exchange Act No. 12 of 2017 to conclude investigations under ECA expired on 19.05.2018 as stipulated in the Foreign Exchange Act No 12 of 2017. These investigations also lapsed on that date.”
Alleged HNB Tax Evasion
After the damning allegations in a website of an alleged tax evasion in HNB Bank was brought to the attention of Governor Coomaraswamy on 25 September 2017, it took the CBSL 42 days to advise me (i)“CBSL has not carried out any investigations” (ii) “the statements” in the article “are factually incorrect” (iii) “The matter is being brought to the attention of the Inland Revenue Department.”
It begs the questions:
i) How “the statements” contained in the article could be “factually incorrect” if “CBSL has not carried out any investigations”?
ii) Why it took CBSL 42 days (from my initial e-mail of 25 September) to belatedly state “The matter is being brought to the attention of the Inland Revenue Department.”?
iii) Has CBSL brought it “to the attention of the Inland Revenue Department” even now? If not why?
The allegations include:
i) Some portion of the “evaded tax” was “divided between the tax advising company and the officers at the Inland Revenue Department involved”
ii) “The current chairman of the bank Rani Jayamaha has also been able to identify the wrongdoing through an internal probe”.
To establish the truth or otherwise of this alleged scam, has the CBSL at least inquired from “Rani Jayamaha” former Deputy Governor of CBSL whether she was “able to identify the wrongdoing” through “an internal probe” when she was Chairman of HNB? If not why?
The silver lining to unravel this ‘hot potato’ is Dinesh Weerakkody being the incumbent HNB Chairman (previously Chairman, Commercial Bank). He should be more than capable to get to the bottom of this saga. He is described as a ‘thought leader’ in his frequent articles to the ‘Daily FT’.
1) NDB Bank
Did the CBSL investigate and respond to the damning allegations in the ‘Daily FT’ of 15 May 2017:
“NDB is on the verge of firing its Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for blowing the whistle late, though he did so within the stipulated timeframe.”
It relates to the alleged “serious misconduct by a senior management personnel over a year ago. The revelation had come two months after the high senior management member concerned had left the bank.”
Is there anything in common between the alleged ‘HNB Tax Evasion’ and the alleged NDB misdemeanor?
When there are serious allegations, is it not incumbent on CBSL’s Bank Supervision Department to conduct robust investigations to ascertain whether such persons are ‘fit and proper’ to hold senior management positions in banks?
2) Sampath Bank
There was even a mainstream media ‘blackout’ of the alleged “Massive Fraud At Sampath Bank” published in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ on 29 January 2019. It was alleged by the “victims” that CBSL “was in a deep slumber while Sampath Bank was siphoning off the customers’ money”. We are still to hear from the CBSL on this alleged “Massive Fraud”.
3) Dubai Arrest
It was widely reported in February this year that a high profile Sri Lankan arrested in Dubai for his alleged involvement in the illicit drugs trade had allegedly deposited as much as “Rs.10 billion in 23 bank accounts” in Sri Lanka and Dubai. Even if half this sum was deposited in Sri Lankan banks, does it not indicate that the CBSL has been in “deep slumber” in this respect too?
One could only speculate as to how many other cases concerning bank supervision not yet in the public domain have escaped the notice of the CBSL?
EAP Group Sale
The CBSL has not disclosed whether its claimed ‘due diligence’ in regard to the sale of EAP Group companies has considered the damning allegations in the news report in ‘The Sunday Times’ of 3 June 2018 “Purchase of Edirisinghe Group: Investors in a labyrinth of multiple companies”?
In particular CBSL has avoided confirming whether there is any truth to the terrible allegation:
“But punitive action is being blocked by the Ministry of Finance which has taken from the Customs Department a file containing evidence against the suspects”
If the CBSL considers the report spurious, has ‘The Sunday Times’ been taken to task?
Links with Jailed Hedge Fund Manager
Intriguingly the CBSL has maintained ‘Radio Silence’ on Coomaraswamy’s links with jailed hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam for ‘Insider Trading’. When questioned on this soon after his appointment as CBSL Governor, he responded as follows:
(i) He was invited by Rajaratnam when he was “finishing at Commonwealth Secretariat” for “delivering some professional services” on “macroeconomic research”
(ii) “That happened for about 10 – 11 months and then of course he was charged and the operation stopped. It took another year for the whole thing to be wound up legally”
Watch 0.25 onwards:
By stating “It took another year for the whole thing to be wound up legally” does he not tacitly admit that after Rajaratnam was “charged” he continued in service for “another year” and drew remuneration for doing so? The question also arises why a person only doing “macroeconomic research” for an organization should apparently be involved in its ‘winding up’?
Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy is held in high esteem by the intelligentsia and elite circles of this country. If he person such as him fails to clarify these issues or gives an unconvincing clarification, is it not realistic to assume that the problems of this country are far more serious than we can imagine?
The ‘Daily FT’ which is the country’s only stand-alone finance and business journal when reporting his resignation referred to him as “Highly respected”. The same journal of 7 November 2019 quoted Coomaraswamy as having stated:
“no amount of policies and regulations would ensure growth, prosperity and stability if good governance and compliance frameworks were fragile”.
Should not Coomaraswamy put his money where his mouth is?