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Corporate espionage: Executives got Cabinet notes at Rs 1 lakh/month

Senior Delhi Police officials say Reliance Industries’ Shailesh Saxena, Vinay Kumar from Essar, K K Naik from Cairn India, Subhash Chandra from Jubilant Energy and Rishi Anand from Reliance Power were allegedly paying Rs 70,000-1,00,000 a month each to Lalta Prasad and his brother Rakesh Kumar for supplying official documents pertaining to the oil, coal and power ministries.

“For a Cabinet note, the amount paid was about Rs 1,00,000. These corporate executives would process and analyse the information and pass it to their seniors for further action. We are checking whether Prasad and Kumar were on the payrolls of the companies or the money exchanged was under the table,” said an official probing the matter.

The crime branch is seeking bank details of the brothers and the arrested employees of these five firms. “Since these corporate houses were the ultimate beneficiaries of the stolen information, we are contemplating a case against them. First, the higher-ups of the companies will be called for questioning,” the source added.

On Thursday, the police had arrested Prasad and Kumar, along with two government employees – Asharam and Ishwar Singh – and a private driver, Raj Kumar Chaubey. The next day, it arrested Santanu Saikia, a former journalist who runs the website indianpetro.com, and energy consultant Prayas Jain, who has an office in the Patel Nagar area here. It alleged Saika and Jain procured information and analysed it for their clients, though they had no direct connection with any of the arrested corporate executives.

On Saturday, Saikia, gave a fresh twist to the case. “Quote me, I was doing a cover-up. It’s a Rs 10,000-crore scam,” he said, as policemen took him for interrogation.

Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said overall, seven rooms were compromised, but denied the involvement of any senior officer. “Standard operating procedure on how secret and confidential files should move need to be strictly adhered to,” he said.

Nobody who was guilty would be spared, he added. “Everything is under investigation and this government will not allow anybody to break the rules. We had information of leakages. We had discomfort and that is when we decided we wanted investigation,” he told the media. On secrecy surrounding decisions, he said in the past nine months, not a single move by the government was kept secret.

On Saturday, the crime branch produced Saxena, manager (corporate affairs) at Reliance Industries, Chandra, senior executive at Jubilant Energy; Anand, deputy general manager at Reliance Group; Vinay, deputy general manager at Essar; and Naik, general manager at Cairn India, before the court of Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Sanjay Khanagwal, at the Patiala House Court complex.

The investigating agency sought the custody of the corporate employees for three days. It told the court it had recovered the set of documents that were allegedly sourced by Prasad and his brother from the oil ministry’s office at Shashtri Bhawan.

“National interest was taken for a ride in the case. Documents relating to national security have also been recovered. This might attract charges under the Official Secrets Act. We need their custody to confront them with the other accused and recover more documents. They are needed to be confronted with officials from the petroleum ministry,” the police told the court.

Sources said though the crime branch hadn’t found evidence against senior ministry officials, the involvement of some junior government employees couldn’t be ruled out.

The court, after listening to defence counsel arguments, allowed the police to interrogate these employees through the next three days. It did not find merit in the defence counsel’s argument that there were no specific charges against the accused.

The defence counsels said since it was photocopied material that had exchanged hands and the case was under Indian Penal Code (IPC) section 411 (dishonestly receiving stolen property), it didn’t hold merit. “The original documents didn’t travel out. So, there is no case of theft,” one of the counsels argued.

The corporate employees have been booked under the IPC sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 411.

On their part, the companies named in the corporate espionage scandal are fighting back, saying the arrest of their executives is “illegal”, as they were picked up for interrogation on February 18, though officially, the arrest was shown to have been carried out on Friday evening (February 20). They denied any exchange of unofficial cash for information, saying they had only paid money to Saikia for subscription to a service.

“We have noted with concern that one of our employees has been arrested by the authorities. Essar is a law-abiding corporate, following a zero-tolerance policy towards acts that are against the law of the land. The company reiterates that neither did it directly nor did it authorise anybody to conduct any acts not in compliance with law. We will launch an internal probe to investigate the matter,” said an Essar spokesperson, replying to a query by Business Standard.

Reliance Industries had a similar view: “We have been informed in the media that one personnel has been arrested. We are ascertaining more details through an internal enquiry to understand the role of this personnel,” the company said.

“The allegations made are completely false and are strongly denied. We are still not aware as to what circumstances and what reasons our junior employee has been arrested on. We will ensure full cooperation with the investigating agency. As a responsible company, we follow the highest standards of ethics and corporate governance norms,” Reliance Power said in an email statement.

While a Cairn India spokesperson didn’t reply to a query by Business Standard, a mail sent to Jubilant Energy’s official account was undelivered. However, a Jubilant Energy executive said the official arrested by the crime branch was a liaison officer, not an executive of the company.

Earlier in the day, Delhi Police took energy consultant Jain to the office of Jubilant Energy for further investigation. “We have searched places that were necessary for the course of investigation. We may further raid places, as our aim is to reach the bottom of the whole thing,” said Police Commissioner B S Bassi.

A director of an oil company said in many cases, energy companies sought to ascertain whether their files had progressed from one ministry to another or if there was any development on policy decisions. At these times, liaison officers were handy, the director added.

“Being a liaison officer is almost a profession. In many cases, it gives people a high by being privy to classified information. It is something to brag about in the industry. Some, however, also make money,” said a former chairman and managing director of an oil company.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh didn’t rule out a nexus of middlemen and government officials in the case. “Jaldi doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani ho jayega (soon, everything will be clear). No guilty person will be spared and the strictest punishment will be given to them,” he said.

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