Panel probing tax tweak charges seeks film footage from Singha Durbar gatesCommittee yet to find anything substantial as police take time to look into the hard drive it gave on Wednesday.
The parliamentary committee formed to investigate charges that Janardan Sharma had invited two outsiders to alter tax rates at the eleventh hour has sought CCTV footage of the gates of Singha Durbar, just as it awaits a response from the Nepal Police regarding the “deleted” CCTV footage of the Finance Ministry.
“Since the Nepal Police has said it would take some more days to give its report, we have decided to seek the CCTV footage of the southern and western gates of the Singha Durbar,” said Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, a member of the parliamentary probe panel.
The Finance Ministry is situated inside Singha Durbar, the county’s administrative hub.
Sharma faces allegations that he invited two outsiders to the Finance Ministry on the night of May 28, who then tweaked tax rates in the budget which he presented before the Parliament on May 29. Media reports suggest Finance Secretary Madhu Marasini, Revenue Secretary Krishna Hari Pushkar, Joint Secretary Bhupal Baral [head, revenue management division] and Joint secretary Chakra Bahadur Budha [head, budget and program division] were present when Sharma allegedly employed the two men to alter taxes.
The probe committee has already questioned the government officials concerned, who have denied any outsider involvement in changing the tax rates.
With the footage of the gates, the panel wants to ascertain whether any outsiders had entered the Singha Durbar premises and if that’s the case, when, according to Bishwakarma.
The probe committee had sought the footage of the night of May 28 from the Finance Ministry, but the ministry had handed over the hard drive saying that the footage got erased because the storage could keep records of only 13 days.
The committee had sent the hard drive to Nepal Police’s forensic division on Wednesday.
“We have decided to seek the footage to ascertain whether the two said outsiders had entered Singha Durbar on the eve of the budget day,” said joint secretary of the parliament secretariat Surendra Aryal, who has been working as the secretary of the probe panel. “We have already sent a letter to the Finance Ministry.”
He said the panel has demanded the footage from May 28 noon to May 29 noon of both the southern and western gates as the eastern gate remains open only during office hours.
Although formed on July 6 with a 10 days’ time to investigate and submit its report and recommendations, the committee started its work only on July 12. Its 10-day mandate ended on July 21 and the same day its term was extended by seven days.
Its extended deadline ends Thursday.
The committee so far seems to have drawn a blank, with no particular lead to pursue.
On Wednesday, the committee questioned Sharma over the allegations, which he flatly denied, saying the charges against him were fabricated.
The committee has also questioned two journalists from the Annapurna Post, a vernacular daily, which first reported that Sharma had changed tax rates with the help of two intermediaries. Both journalists told the committee that they “have the evidence” but cannot reveal them.
The committee, formed after the main opposition CPN-UML constantly demanded a parliamentary probe into allegations against Sharma, has four members from the UML and two each from the Nepali Congress and the CPN (Maoist Centre). From the CPN (Unified Socialist), the Janata Samajbadi Party and the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party, there is one member each.
The members of the committee are Khagaraj Adhikari, Pradeep Gyawali, Bhanubhakta Dhakal and Bimala BK from the UML; Dev Gurung and Shakti Basnet from the Maoist Centre; Pushpa Bhusal and Sitaram Yadav representing the Congress; Sarala Kumari Yadav from the Unified Socialist; Laxman Lal Karna from the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party; and Surendra Yadav from the Janata Samajbadi Party.
The Congress, the Maoist Centre, the Unified Socialist and the Janata Samajbadi are partners in the current coalition.
Despite the media outcry, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and CPN (Maoist Centre) chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal had shown little interest in taking action against Sharma.
Sharma is a leader of the Maoist Centre, a key coalition partner in the Deuba government.
After the probe committee was formed, some had suspected it was more an eyewash than the real intention to hold the accused accountable as Sharma enjoys protection from his party boss Dahal and Prime Minister Deuba.
Some panel members representing the UML have accused the officials of not cooperating with the investigation.
“We have even heard a former finance minister making public statements that Sharma would return as finance minister after 10 days or so,” said Khagaraj Adhikari, a member of the panel from the UML. “Civil servants have not cooperated with our investigation, and there have been attempts to cover up the incident.”
Adhikari said there have been attempts to conceal the incident as some officials have even told the panel that a new set of officials took over the budget preparation at 3am.
A case was even filed at the Supreme Court demanding an order to keep the CCTV records of all the ministries safe and both the secretaries at the Finance Ministry be relieved for tampering with evidence.
But on July 16, the Supreme Court just noted that “it cannot imagine that CCTV records of Singha Durbar, the main administrative hub of the country, are not kept safely by the authorities.”
The court refused to issue an order as per the demand of the petitioners—advocates Baburam Aryal, Saroj Krishna Ghimire and Shishir Kumar Yadav as well as Bina Yadav of Madhav Narayan-9 of Rautahat district.
A single bench of Justice Kumar Regmi said an interim order was not necessary because it is unimaginable that the CCTV data of Singha Durbar are not safe.
Aryal, secretary of the probe panel, said that the committee is hopeful of coming to some conclusion by Monday.
“The next meeting of the probe committee is scheduled for Monday morning,” Aryal told the Post.
Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary, says the entire probe process looks fishy.
“It looks like the probe committee will ultimately come up with a report to give a clean chit to Sharma even as it has become apparent that outsiders were employed to tweak tax rates,” Khanal, who had resigned in March 2011 after his differences with the then finance minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari. “I have been told that outsiders had actually entered the ministry but they [officials] could not defy the minister.”
According to Khanal, failing to provide the needed CCTV footage and finance secretary feeling uneasy when the committee questioned him shows there is something wrong,
“Ministry officials seem to be under extreme pressure fearing retribution from those accused,” said Khanal. “The panel should again talk to the finance secretary by ensuring his safety.”