Continued from last week; Sunanda Saga, States of denial and NGO Accountability
Last week I reproduced Sunanda Deshapriya’s lies regarding his corruption. On December 28, 2008 Sunanda Deshapriya said to Lakbima News Namini Wijedasa; There was no other alternative to do that. At the end of the project, we found that something was missing. So we discussed among ourselves and decided to do it the way we did, without cheating the money but by using the excess money for something else. Ninety per cent of NGOs work like this. I know that other NGOs have had much bigger issues and there has been internal disciplinary action. But Sara (Saravanamuttu) and some others have gone to the press. I accept their right to go to the media.
His statement regarding NGO work is a real challenge to Sri Lankan NGOs. NGO leaders must address the issue. He said; “Ninety per cent of NGOs work like this. I know that other NGOs have had much bigger issues and there has been internal disciplinary action.” If we believe Sunanda then we have to believe ninety per cent NGOs are corrupt. This week I will describe Sunanda’s and the International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) way of robbing money.
In 2007, there was a USAID-funded project called promoting “Public Services Values in Media” (PSM). The project partners were International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU), Sri Lanka Muslim Media Association, Tamil Media Alliance and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). All financial and administrative work was done by the CPA with staff members assigned specifically for the relevant tasks. Sunanda Deshapriya was the chief of the Media Unit, Sasha Ekanayake was the unit coordinator and the other three full time staff members were Manjula Wediwardena, Athula Vithanage and Chanaka Krishantha. The final event of the project was to conduct an island-wide programme to reward journalistic excellence. The prize giving was held at the Galle Face Hotel on November 16, 2007. IFJ Asia Pacific Director Jacqueline Park was also present.
According to the original project, organisers have to produce a book with prize-winners’ articles. Instead of doing so, Sunanda and other project staff decided to produce a Compact Disk containing just the visuals of the prize giving. Deshapriya secretly misled the project staff saying he has to pay Jacqueline Park’s air ticket and there was no money in the project. He asked them to over-invoice the CD production bill. So, they produced 200 CDs and over- invoiced it for 1,200 items. The CPA was given a forged invoice from an advertising company. Unfortunately for Sunanda, the CPA accountant rang the advertising company and asked for clarification. The company said they had not produced CDs or an invoice. The CPA stopped the payment. Sunanda then produced another forged bill for the same transaction and he himself authorised it as a Director of the CPA. Since he was a director, the CPA accountant released the cheque. The payee collected the cheque form the CPA and came to meet Sunanda. Sunanda’s subordinate Chanka Krishantha was sent to the bank with the payee Deleepa Hemantha. He cashed the cheque, charged for 200 CDs and gave the balance rupees 192,150 to Krishantha, who came to the office and handed over that money to Sunanda.
This took place in December 2007. Sunanda was the Convenor, FMM while being a director and the head of the media unit, CPA. I was informed of a suspicious transaction and I decided to investigate it.
I asked CPA unit coordinator why Jacqueline Park’s air ticket was not paid by CPA. He said there is another 3-year project called “promoting human rights in media (EU HR)”, funded by the European Union and run by the IFJ with five media organisations. I was told Jacqueline came to Sri Lanka to launched the EU HR Programme at Hotel Janaki and the same night had participated in the PSM prize giving at the Gall Face Hotel. Which was true and I was in the both events too. The date was November 16, 2007. But, I had no authority to carry out any official investigation at that time. In any case, I wanted to collect hard evidence on this malpractice before proceeding. When I checked the EU HR budget there was money for three tickets for International travel for Project Supervisor. One trip for the EU HR project launch, a second trip for 2008 HR prize giving and the third for 2009 prize giving. Apart from that another two air tickets for IFJ regional expert travel.
By the time I had became the Convenor of the FMM. I opened a file and collect all the evidence and kept a record. Meanwhile, somehow Sunanda came to know that I was investigating him, and he surreptitiously handed over the robbed money to FMM as a donation. This was in June 2008. He asked a donation receipt from the FMM administrative officer Fiazal. Fiazal told me that Sunanda donated 192, 150 which was a strange figure for a donation. I still could not proceed further, because people involved this corrupt activity were not willing to give evidence officially. It must be remembered that he had kept the money for eight months!
At the time I became the Convenor in May 2008, FMM was involved in two major projects, one was the above-mentioned Human Rights Programme funded by EU and the other, a Public Service Media (PSM), funded by the Norwegians (run by IFJ and five media organaisations, without CPA involvement). Sunanda was the project head at the FMM. Manjula Wediwardena, Athula Vithanage and Ravi Chandralal were the project staff. At one meeting IFJ Jacqueline Park told them that when they organise island-wide training programmes, to conduct the HR workshops and PSM workshops on same day, same place for the same participants and get the two bills from the hotels!! In other words, she asked them to forge one invoice and forge one participants’ signature list. Sunanda and Park were obviously planning to cheat two different donors. Someone informed me their plan and I told Sunanda to stop it. Sunanda then angrily shouted at Wediwardena and Vithanage, accusing one of them having told me since he trusted Chandralal. Wediwardene at this point, said that we had trained journalists on corruption and journalism last year. He pointed out this was corruption and asked how we can ask invoices from hotels? Then Sunanda accused Wediwardena of being engaged in corruption. Wediwardena replied saying, ‘yes, I am guilty of over-invoicing with regard to CD production’. Sunanda was exposed thus before my eyes. He threatened Wediwardena and asked him to resign. The fight went on and on with Sunanda trying to sack them. At the Editors’ Guild annual prize giving night, after consuming a lot of alcohol, they resumed the fight and called each other “hora , hora” (thief, thief). The corruption drama was spread all over.
Now I am quoting relevant parts from the official emails in the file I gave to Internal Audit Committee of FMM. You can see how Sunanda was/is lying and how he tried to launder money.
Forwarding an email with attachments from IFJ Jacqui Park, on November 19, 2008 at 7:37 AM, Sunanda asked FMM Treasurer Kasun Yapa Karunarathna to authorise a money transfer to FMETU. The email was copied to other office-bearers including me.
I identified this 192,150 figure strait away. That was the robbed money from CPA. Without mentioning it, I replied; “According to the attached letter from Jacqui, ‘FMM is currently holding a 192,150 Sri Lankan rupees reimbursement to the IFJ for travel costs incurred by Jacqueline Park on the PSM prize giving event on November 16 2007.’ My point is FMM has no obligation on this, because the 2007 PSM prize giving was organized by CPA.”
Sunanda replied to us “I handed over that amount form as travel cost to 192,150 FMM form some saving we had for IFJ work, It was given as part of the LOTCO payment, The receipt is in FMM office, in the LOTCO budget. We had to do this as Sasha had not informed us that there was no travel cost in the budget only per diem and fees, FMM can give me this amount; then I can transfer this amount to FMETU. [sic]
I replied; “Your answer is not clear, What is this SOME SAVINGS? Can you clarify this? Are you holding FMM savings with you? Are the treasurers aware of this? ( last year Rusahangan and this year Kasun). Are the office-bearers aware of these savings? (except me)”
Sunanda replied; “It is my private savings for media freedom work re IFJ, I have spent more form this savings on many occasions for our press freedom activities, Whenever I earn from media freedom work I keep a saving for emergency work, This money has nothing to do with any organisation, This was paid to FMM as it was easier than to transfer the money. [sic]
I replied; Okay,Then why did Jacqui park says FMM is holding 192,150 rupees? This is what you said re this 192,150 money in your earlier mail, I handed over that amount form as travel cost to 192,150 FMM form some saving we had for IFJ work, It was given as part of the LOTCO payment. This is discordant with the new answer.
Sunanda replied; “Sorry Uvindu, We mean Menik and me,” (Manik is his wife)
I replied; “Thanks for your generosity. Keep doing your generous donations to the FMM. The problem is this is a lot of money and you are donating this amount for some training which is conducted by SLWJA. We don’t need to ask money from the donors!!!!!!!!!!! But if you looked at the PSM budget 2007 which the CPA conducted there is money for IFJ expert’s traveling????”
Sundanda replied; “No money for IFJ expert travel in 2007 PSM budget, the problem is that when you look at it you get that feeling, but it comes under local contribution.”
I replied; “I’m new to the NGO culture; are we cheating the funders? But even if that’s a local contribution it was 150,000 rupees; how has it become 192,150. Was it air cost?
Sunanda replied; We can discus cheating the funders in a meeting to see who has done it before and who is doing it still, We all who travel know air fare changes, I think best way to sort this out is to return the money back to me, then I can transfer that amount to FMETU, then there is no issue for FMM to be burden with. [sic]
I replied; “I do not care who is cheating the funders. But FMM must not do that. Does the travel cost is tally with current air fares? Did we receive any invoice for the air ticket?”
Then I wrote an email to all FMM office-bearers and the office-bearers of the other four media organizations explaining this blatant act of theft. I copied the relevant part of the two budgets re the air ticket saga. Even it was clearly robbed money I repeatedly asked to produce a valid invoice for the said air ticket. He has so far failed to produce an invoice.
Apart from that, I also rang Dr. Saravanamuttu and explained the situation of this “stolen money”. Sara asked me to send an email to him. Since Sunanda says that air fare comes under local contribution, I forward those emails to him and asked him to clarify why CPA did not pay Jaqui Park’s air fares in November 16,, 2007. We both knew what had happened, but this email was sent so he could carry out the investigations further. Then Sara sent an email to Sunanda and asked why CPA did not pay that air ticket money. He replied claiming that it was his mistake and he paid the ticket money from his own pocket!
I handed over the relevant files including some other instances of corruption to the FMM internal audit committee on December 5, 2008. They have started the investigations.
On December 7, 2008 Sunanda rang me from Athens Air port and begged not to go further and promised to sort-out all money issues. The day he returned he visited my house with his wife and reiterated this. But it was too late. On December 18, 2008, Wediwardena, Vithanage and Krishantha gave evidence against Sunanda regarding all this and he was duly sacked from the CPA. Of course, I encouraged them to give evidence at a proper inquiry. When I realised they were twiddling their thumbs over this I spread a rumor that Saravanamuttu is going to give this files to Criminal Investigation Department. Then they got scared and gave the evidence.
The story didn’t end there. The day Sunanda was sacked, an NGO leaders’ delegation led by INFORM Sunila Abeysekera, an award winning human rights campaigner met Dr. Saravanamuttu and begged to revoke his decision. They told Sara it was detrimental to the peace and human rights movement in Sri Lanka, and that others will use it against NGOs, etc. Even though Sara did not agree with them the following morning he came with the theory called “lacked clarity” not the “swindler”. Deshapriya is using that weak point and still playing around saying he did not rob the money! These are the people who question others integrity, talking of good governance, transparency, etc. As I wrote last week, the day Sunanda was sacked Dr Saravanamuttu said to me, “Tell Sunanda not to come to any public event, I will expose him calling a press conference”. He was influenced by other NGO tycoons.
You may think this is just a 192,150 rupees issue. It is not. This story shows how they pocket NGO money, how they cheat the donors by producing forged bills. The story is still unfolding. FMM internal investigations found millions of money had been misused. FMM now says they are not doing further investigations. But its own reports which they sent to me, shows rupees 30,900,000 (30.9 million) went unaudited and they failed to submit accounts for the official years 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 to its membership. Although the office-bearers positions are volunteer positions, FMM is a registered NGO under Sri Lankan law. Under the Sri Lankan law FMM has to submit its annual accounts to the NGO Commissioner. It has even failed to fulfill this obligation. There are still corrupt people in FMM. They all do not want to investigate this. They are sacred that it will open another Pandora’s box. My investigations found Sunanda to be responsible for swindling millions of money. This corruption saga is still to unfold.
Related story; Sunanda Saga, States Of Denial And NGO Accountability