The Enforcement Directorate is struggling to get answers from Chhagan Bhujbal even though a fortnight has passed after the arrest of this Nationalist Congress Party leader and former Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra in a multi-crore rupees scam. ED officials say that the scam-accused politician is silent and is refusing to co-operate with the agencies. According to the ED’s remand application to the Special PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act) court, “His attitude reveals non-cooperation towards the investigation only to hide true facts pertaining to the case.” The ED has so far identified and provisionally attached “crime proceeds” worth Rs 131. 86 crore. The agency is now looking at identifying Rs 708 crore as crime proceeds. Meanwhile, the uncle-nephew duo of Chhagan Bhujbal and Sameer Bhujbal will spend some more time at the Arthur Road prison in judicial custody. The special PMLA court extended their custody until 13 April, even as Chhagan Bhujbal has appealed to the court to allow him to meet his lawyer in private. “I urge you to treat my requests sympathetically,” he told the court during his deposition via video conferencing from Arthur Road prison.
The ED is now looking into complaints of placing, channelling and layering the “proceeds of crime”, allegedly by the Bhujbals, in the names of many former public servants, associates and trusted persons. It is also looking at possible money laundering by the politician during the awarding of the contract for a Central library at the Kalina University. The Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau recently filed a chargesheet against him for giving the contract to a private contractor through conspiracy and forgery of documents, thus leading to huge losses to the public exchequer.
The agency is yet to identify and attach a property worth Rs 708 crore belonging to the politician and his family members. The Bhujbals have been accused of massive money laundering and taking kickbacks for awarding government contracts. So far, various agencies have filed four chargesheets against the Bhujbals. The ED has identified and attached Rs 131 crore as “proceeds of crime”.
Meanwhile, the original complainant in the case, Preeti Sharma-Menon, has told the court that the witnesses were being threatened and harassed. “A witness, who has given all true information on record, is now being pressurised to withdraw his statement. He faces suspension from service, which has been done at the behest of the Bhujbals,” she said. She has also filed an intervention application before the special PMLA court stating this. The court will hear the matter at the next date.
Chhagan Bhujbal has pleaded to the court that he is suffering from a list of ailments and should be allowed to use a bed in prison. He and his nephew Sameer have been lodged in Mumbai’s Arthur Road prison after being arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on charges of money laundering and fraud to the tune of crores of rupees.
At present, the ED is investigating complaints regarding corruption in giving contracts for the construction of Maharashtra Sadan, and for the Hexworld Project in Rohinjan, Navi Mumbai. “The total proceeds of crime quantified in this complaint amount to Rs 840.16 crore. Out of this, the proceeds of crime identified and provisionally attached so far amount to Rs 131.86 crore. They include land, fixed deposits, a sugar factory, flats and a bungalow,” an ED official said.
So far, in the chargesheet filed against Chhagan Bhujbal and 54 others in the Maharashtra Sadan case, the ED has named corporations like Balwa Group, D.B. Realty, Neelkamal Realtors Pvt Ltd, Kakade Infrastructure. It has also named Vinod Goenka and Asif Balwa. The agency has said that the politician and his family routed the laundered money through Kolkata.
The ED has told the court, “In view of the evidence collected and money trail available so far, there are reasons to believe that Chhagan Bhujbal is guilty of the offence of money laundering. The huge cash generation in the case of RTO/Maharashtra Sadan case was only possible due to Bhujbal occupying a very high position in the then Government of Maharashtra. Being an influential person, he may influence the other witnesses or tamper with the evidence, if allowed to remain at large.”
In 2014, the Bombay High Court had constituted a Special Investigation Team comprising the Director General of the Anti Corruption Bureau, Mumbai, and Director, ED to inquire into the allegations made against Bhujbal and his family.
The ACB had then registered two FIRs on 8 June 2015 and 11 June 2015 against him, his family members and some of his employees. The allegations were regarding scams during his tenure as the Minister for Maharashtra Public Works Department. Soon after that, the Navi Mumbai police registered an FIR against Sameer Bhujbal, Pankaj Bhujbal, Rajesh Dharap, Satyen Kesarkar and Amit Balraj on charges of awarding projects to contractors in lieu of cash.
ED officials said that a former employee of Chhagan Bhujbal’s education institute, MET, had disclosed that huge leather bags containing crores of rupees were daily stashed at the MET office in Mumbai.
“The money trail established so far has led to a web of companies, some of which exist on paper while the others are non-existent,” an ED official said. “It appears that Chhagan Bhujbal is the prime mover behind the generation of the proceeds of crime by misusing his position as a minister in the Maharashtra government,” a lawyer representing ED said.