How probe turns into a farce: House panel says it found nothing against SharmaCommittee is divided with ruling party members pressing for absolving ex-finance minister, as the four representatives from the CPN-UML write their dissent.
Tika R Pradhan
The parliamentary committee formed to probe the alleged last-moment tax tweaks on the eve of the budget presentation day has failed to find any evidence against Janardan Sharma and exonerated him of charges.
In its report, the committee, formed on July 6, has said it could not confirm the allegations that Sharma invited two outsiders to the Finance Ministry on the night of May 28 to alter tax rates.
Sharma stepped down as finance minister following the formation of the parliamentary probe committee with 11 members—four from the main opposition CPN-UML, two each from the Nepali Congress and the CPN (Maoist Centre) and one each from the CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajbadi Party and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party.
UML members in the panel opposed the idea of absolving Sharma. However, they were in a minority, as six members were from the ruling coalition.
The committee was given 10 days to prepare its report from the date they commenced their work. It formally started its work on July 12 and after the 10-day mandate ended, it was given seven more days on July 21. The extended deadline ended on Thursday.
As the committee sat down to write the report, unanimity eluded.
“We have our differing views in the report as the panel decided to absolve Sharma,” Khagaraj Adhikari, a member representing the UML, told the Post. “We have had our dissent registered.”
After quizzing Sharma and two finance secretaries, Madhu Kumar Marasini and Krishna Hari Pushkar, and two journalists who first reported about involvement of outsiders in tax tweaking, the committee had sought the CCTV footage of the Finance Ministry from May 28 noon to May 29 noon. After the ministry failed to provide the footage, saying the hard drive could keep records of only 13 days, it had submitted the drive to Nepal Police for examination.
The committee wanted to know from the police if the data were deleted and if the data could be retrieved. The police on Monday submitted a report to the committee with multiple clips, which the members found confusing.
The committee failed to find anything despite questioning the forensic experts involved in the investigation. The committee on Sunday sought CCTV footage of the eastern and southern gates of Singha Durbar from May 28 noon to May 29 noon. But the Home Ministry said on Tuesday that the hard drive could record data for only 16 days, contrary to its own CCTV/Camera Installation and Operation Procedure 2015 that says such data must be kept safely for 30 days.
Surendra Aryal, secretary of the committee, said the report has been completed except for some technicalities and the panel will hand it over to the Speaker on Friday.
“You will know about its content soon,” he told the Post, refusing to offer details of the report.
Another member of the panel Sitaram Mahato, who represents the Nepali Congress, said the report has stated that the investigation found nothing against Sharma.
“The conclusion of the report is that nothing was found to prove that unauthorised people entered the Finance Ministry,” Mahato told the Post. “But the members of the panel representing the UML have their differing views in the report.”
Mahato said UML members continued to say that unauthorised people “had actually entered” and that they had also proposed seeking phone call details and grilling the suspected persons but the panel could not agree on it.
The members from the UML had earlier also pressed for obtaining call records of Sharma, but those from the ruling parties rejected the idea saying it would breach his right to privacy.
It was by and large clear from the very first day that the probe would draw a blank, as such committees in the past have exonerated the accused rather than making earnest efforts to uncover the truth.
Experts say there were multiple flaws in the investigation by the committee—no matter if they were deliberate, innocuous or unintentional.
Hemanta Malla, a former deputy inspector general of Nepal Police, said the probe panel took a wrong approach from the very beginning in the investigation and they did not feel the need to secure the site of the alleged incident.
“How you start the process is very important in any investigation. It looks like they asked the thief to return the stolen goods when in fact they should have first secured the site of the incident,” said Malla. “Because the culprits will always try to destroy the evidence if the incident site is not secured.”
Malla said if the parliamentary committee was unaware of the investigation procedure, it should have sought help from Nepal Police, and there were several ways—examining mobile phones, laptops—to find out whether the alleged unauthorised persons had actually entered the Finance Ministry.
“I saw many gaps in the way the panel took the issue of fact finding,” Malla said. “Their attitude shows that all members were working in tandem and had no intention of finding the evidence.”
The committee questioned government officials jointly instead of grilling them separately. The committee failed to conduct evidence-based interrogation of Sharma and instead posed feeble questions like if he had invited outsiders to tweak tax rates to which his obvious response was denial of the allegations.
Experts say the probe was nothing but a farce, a hogwash as there was little chance of members from the ruling parties, especially the Congress and Maoist Centre, going against their party bosses’ orders.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal had paid little attention to charges that had surfaced against Sharma.
Sharma, a former Maoist commander, is a close ally of Dahal’s. Even when Sharma formed a committee in April to investigate activities of central bank governor Maha Prasad Adhikari, Deuba and Dahal kept mum. Adhikari was suspended but was restored to office by the Supreme Court.
Observers say Sharma should have resigned soon afterwards on moral grounds. According to them, there were efforts to protect Sharma from the time he started facing allegations, so the probe committee was just an eyewash.
Dev Gurung, a member from the Maoist Centre, said the committee had hardly anything to say as there was no evidence to prove the charges against Sharma.
“We did what we could,” Gurung told the Post. “The report contains what we found and what we didn’t. Actually, we didn’t find anything as such with regard to the charges [against Sharma].”
According to some members of the committee, Gurung, along with Shakti Basnet who also represented the Maoist Centre, and Man Bahadur Bishwarkarma and Sitaram Mahato of Congress, pressed hard for a report exonerating Sharma.
“The members of the ruling parties were in favour of covering up the crime but we are not involved in it,” said Adhikari, a member representing the UML. “We have our version in the report which will be public after it is submitted to the Speaker.”