By Malinda Seneviratne –
Presidential Counsel and Member of Parliament Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has chided the media ‘for not giving sufficient coverage to former Chief Justice Kanagasabapathy J. Sripavan’s testimony before the Presidential Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). The case in question is one where it is alleged that Mahapola assets worth up to Rs 50,000 mn had been sold to the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) for a relatively paltry su of Rs 409 mn on May 12, 2015 under controversial circumstances.
Rajapakshe, the former Minister of Justice has pointed out that this was the first instance where a former Chief Justice had testified before a presidential commission of this kind.
Well, the case has been covered in the media. The media is not required to offer a complete transcript of proceedings. The media has, however, reported the essential parts of the exchange. And it is very interesting. Let’s recap.
On May 12, 2015, the METF signed an agreement with SLIIT and also leased the land, on which SLIIT stands, at Rs. 20 million per annum for 60 years. This effectively made SLIIT independent of the METF. According to the Auditor General, due to the new agreement, the METF lost Rs. 120.99 million between May 2015 and December 2017, considering that the 2005 agreement had SLIIT paying METF either Rs. 8 million or 20% of the net profit, whichever was greater. How did this all come about? Justice Sripavan has made some horrific revelations.
Justice Sripavan was an ex-officio head of the Mahapola Education Trust Fund (METF) by virtue of him being the Chief Justice (CJ). When the METF was set up by the late Lalith Athulathmudali, Rajapakse reminds us, ensured it would be headed by the incumbent CJ in order to ensure transparency and prevent corruption.
Sripavan’s testimony tells a sorry story. Sripava claims when he received from the late Wickrema Weerooria the minutes of ‘Meeting 56’ held on April 29, 2015 and which in fact was the first meeting he had chaired, he had noted the insertion of a minute regarding two agreements between the METF and SLIIT. He had immediately called Weerasuriya and said that this minute should be deleted.
Sripavan claims that Weerasooria had met Sripavan in his chambers and asked whether had could sign as the CJ after the ministers decide on a quantum, to which he had responded by saying that it cannot be executed unless approved by the Board.
Sripavan’s indictment of Weerasooria is damning, except for the fact that the latter is no longer able to defend himself. Anyway, according to Sripavan, Weerasooria had called him on the 11th of May had said the Minister of Higher Education Sarath Amunugama (SLFP) and Minister of Food Security Gamini Jayawickrama Perera ‘would come at 3 pm the following day to sign the agreement and indenture of lease.’ Weerasooria’s argument, according to Sripavan, was that the two ministers can decide on the quantum and thereafter the members appointed by the minister would have to execute.
Now this confers nothing more than rubber-stamping functions on Board members, clearly. At any rate, Weerasooria is said to have called Sripavan’s secretary wanting the CJ’s presence assured the following day. So, on the 12th of May Sripavan was duly informed by his secretary that the ministers had arrived. Sripavan claims he went to the lounge ‘as a matter of courtesy’ and found Weerasooria, Anil Rajakaruna, 2 SLIIT officials and 2 notary publics waiting for him.
Minister Perera had inquires as to why Sripavan refused to sign the documents. Sripavan cited non-approval by the Board. At this point, Weerasooria had apparently brushed aside objections, claimed he had perused the documents and would sign on behalf of the METF. After the documents were signed, Weerasooria had told Prof Lakshman to hand over the cheque to Sripavan which he had declined but had later relented on the insistence of everyone present who pointed out ‘it is Mahapola money’. He had unwillingly accepted it (let us read it as ‘under duress’). Weerasooria had immediately taken it and banked in the METF account at the Bank of Ceylon.
Sripavan says that only 4 persons were present at the next meeting (57th), held on the 18th of July. He claims to have told Weerasooria that the documents were signed with the approval of ministers and not with approval of the board. He called for the amendment of the minutes, but those present had disagreed because they had already signed the agreement. Nevertheless the minutes (of the 57th) show that both ministers approved the agreement and signed as witnesses, but that the agreements were submitted to the Board only on the 18th of July (although they were signed on the 12th of May!). Sripavan had not signed the minutes of either meeting. He declares now that the meeting of the 18th of July was invalid as notice was not given to some of the trustees.
It is easy to see that there has been procedural hanky-panky. Weerasooria passed away recently, so he cannot defend himself. Others, including the two ministers, can and one hopes CIABOC will summon them to give account of their involvement in this strange operation.
One also hopes that CIABOC will ask Sripavan some questions, especially since he was at the time the Chief Justice. The following, for example.
What happened in Meeting 58? Did METF sweep the entire affair under the carpet? Why did Sripavan accept the cheque? Could he not have refused to do so? Why did he bow down to what can be termed, following his testimony, ‘political pressure’? Why did he wait four years, one month and 24 days passed before Sripavan revealed all this? Why did he have to wait until a presidential commission summoned him to testify? Is his conduct in keeping with the objectives envisaged by Athulathmudali when it was decided that the sitting Chief Justice would head the METF? Was the principal of transparency affirmed? Would he say now what he was silent on for more than four years, i.e., procedural protocols were violated (in the least) and corruption was sanctioned (in all probability) under his watch? And finally, what does all this have to say about the character and integrity of the justice system, considering that he was, at the time, the Chief Justice?
Rajapakshe wants this issue to be a central issues in the forthcoming presidential election. He’s a politician. He was also the Minister of Justice at the time. He too needs to be questioned on these strange procedures. Did he not know? When did he know and what did he do about it?
Coloring it with politics can detract from the seriousness of the matter. It’s public money or rather money that ought to have come to the Treasury. Citizens have a stake in all this. And the jury is not exactly out.