Kochi: Four months; three central agencies; 92.5 hours of questioning. Rumours, controversies, illness, hospitalisation, anticipatory bail application, emotional arguments. After all this, chief minister’s former principal secretary M Sivasankar finds himself placed under arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
It began with Customs Department
The Customs Department filed the gold smuggling case on July 5 after busting the racket that was being run using the diplomatic channel. Sivasankar came under the department’s radar after Swapna Suresh was named as an accused in the case. During the first round of interrogation on July 14 and 15, Sivasankar answered the questions without hiding the fact that he was close to Swapna.
Sivasankar openly admitted that he had arranged the flat in Thiruvananthapuram in which those involved in the smuggling operations had met several times to hatch the smuggling conspiracy, that he had introduced Swapna to his chartered accountant to open a bank locker and he provided her financial assistance.
He told the investigating agencies that Swapna had told her that some officials at the UAE consulate smuggled in cosmetics and sold them in the Thiruvananthapuram market. He also said that Swapna had told him that she had lost her job at the Consulate because she had knowledge about the suspicious financial dealings of a high-ranking official there.
The suspended bureaucrat also provided details of his travels abroad with Swapna and on other matters. He, however, said that he did not know anything about gold smuggling or Swapna’s financial dealings. The Customs Department then did not have the evidence against this stand of Sivasankar. It seized Sivasankar's iPhone.
Questioning by NIA, ED
It was next the turn of the NIA and ED. They questioned Sivasankar six times.
The Customs Department reopened Sivasankar's file on October 9 after the ED filed the chargesheet in the gold smuggling case. The chargesheet contained a crucial piece of information: There were several WhatsApp chats between Sivasankar and his chartered accountant about Swapna’s money transactions even before the gold smuggling case was filed.
The Customs did not have to consider the WhatsApp chats that took place before the gold smuggling case. But the chat messages made it clear to them that Sivasankar was hiding things from them. The Customs then launched an investigation into the financial dealings.
Back to Kochi
On October 9, he was summoned to appear before the Customs Preventive Commissionerate in Kochi for questioning in connection with the cases on the import of dates and distribution of religious texts. But, by afternoon, the questions veered towards the gold smuggling case. Customs let Sivasankar go after 11 hours of interrogation, but after issuing a notice asking him to appear again the next day.
On October 10, Customs ‘welcomed’ Sivasankar with a ‘triple lock’. While he was being interrogated at the Commissionerate, Customs officials simultaneously questioned three other accused in the gold smuggling case — Swapna, Sandeep and Sarith — in jail. Sivasankar was again questioned for 11 hours.
Sivasankar was released by the Customs after he gave them the assurance that he would present evidence regarding his foreign travels on October 13. But, on October 13, he sought time to appear before the agency.
Picked up from home
On October 16, Customs approached the Economic Offences court seeking permission to arrest Swapna and Sarith in a case of $1.90 lakh (Rs 1.34 crore) in foreign currency that was smuggled abroad. On the same day, Customs issued a notice to Sivasankar asking him to appear before it for questioning in Thiruvananthapuram at 6 pm. The notice was given just half-an-hour before the questioning was to begin.
Joint Commissioner Vasanthagesan and Superintendent Vivek Vasudevan, the investigating officer, returned from Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram. Sivasankar was picked up from his home and taken in a car, and the Customs officials continued their journey to the office.
On the way to the Customs office, Sivasankar was admitted to a private hospital due to “ill health”. After waiting for a while, Customs officials went away. The very next day, Sivasankar applied for an anticipatory bail. The High Court rejected the anticipatory bail application on Wednesday morning and within minutes, the ED took Sivasankar into custody. It then reached its Kochi office with him around 3:20pm. He was arrested around 10 pm.
Question No. 94
What trapped M Sivasankar in the money laundering case filed against Swapna was his ambiguous answer to question number 94 of the Enforcement Directorate.
Question no 94: You earlier stated that you did not ask (chartered accountant) Venugopal to open a bank locker with Swapna jointly, you did not know how much cash was handed over to Venugopal, you were not informed by Venugopal every time there was an operation in the bank locker. They are however found to be wrong as per the statement dated 09.08.2020 of Venugopal given u/s 50 of Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002 and the WhatsApp chats between you and Venugopal.
Answer: Regarding Q56, I had already answered in A87 and A88. Regarding Q60, my answer remains the same. I do acknowledge that you have shown me a printout of WhatsApp message chat in which an amount is mentioned, which may indeed be the actual amount involved. However, while answering Q60, since I did not have a WhatsApp message to refer to in my phone the insinuation that my answer to Q60 is wrong does not seem to be fully justified. Regarding Q63, the WhatsApp chat between me and Venugopal, a printout of which was shown to me does not indicate that Venugopal is informing me of the operation of the bank locker every time by him. Only one reference in the WhatsApp chat is covered in my answer to Q93.