“Since you said we can go ahead after the interaction with Swapna Suresh, we are finalizing the process of recruiting her. We expect to appoint her at your Thiruvananthapuram office on October 21, 2019," these were the excerpts from the email sent by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) associate director C Prathap Mohan Nair to Kerala State IT Infrastructure Ltd (KSITIL) managing director and in-charge of Space Park, Jayasankar Prasad.
There was an additional line at the end; "Looking forward to having a long standing and mutual association with Space Park, ICT Academy and KSITIL". The deal which was expected to strike a long-term cooperation ironically ended up in turning PwC and the state government into sworn enemies of each other. This email would have just been a routine mail that is usually sent by a consultancy firm after being appointed as consultant. However, the deal set off by the email went on to expose the unholy nexus between prominent consultancy companies and the government.
A massive double dealing took place behind the appointment of Swapna Suresh, one of the prime accused in the sensational gold smuggling case in Kerala which is being probed by multi central agencies. She was recruited on the strength of a fake degree certificate by throwing all norms to winds and on a whopping monthly salary of Rs 3.18 lakh. The PwC which worked at the beck and call of the higher-ups in the government finally got trapped in a web.
The pathetic downfall of PwC is also a text book on what a consultancy should not be. This is a probe into the reverse referral fraud which facilitated the appointment of people under the garb of consultancy companies, to posts having a salary higher than the state's chief secretary. After our detailed investigation which went on for months, we are explaining here with documentary evidence what exactly happened in the appointment of Swapna.
The "No" that saved KPMG
Instead of PricewaterhouseCoopers, KSITIL had first extended the offer to KPMG to recruit Swapna in Space Park. With the KPMG rejecting the high level directive to inform Swapna's appointment within 24 hours, the ball moved to PwC's court. While KPMG saved itself from the major controversies that followed its rival PwC got entangled in the controversy.
On September 24 and 25, Space Park special officer Santhosh Kurup sent two emails to KPMG higher-ups seeking consultants. The details sought through Right to Information clearly reveal that despite the matter being that of getting a new contract, the KPMG didn’t utter a word in its reply. The reason behind KPMG's silence was Swapna only.
Section Officer's file note
Two months after Swapna's arrest, section officer of IT Department Mathew John made a file note on this matter; “At no stage was government’s permission or advice sought for appointing Swapna in the Project Management Unit through PwC. KSITIL has not informed the government about matters like inclusion of PwC till now. Therefore the government's advice is not needed for further proceedings.”
If the argument that the section officer or the IT department which worked under former principal secretary of chief minister and former IT secretary M Sivasankar were not aware of the transactions that happened on his recommendations is true, then the high level conspiracy behind the entire matter is quite evident. The above file note is also an open admission of subordinate officers that they had no role in the conspiracy.
The agreement pertaining to the Swapna's appointment on October 21, was signed only on January 1,2020. The agreement was signed between KSITIL MD and PwC partner Sreeram Ananthasayanam. The witnesses were KSITIL company secretary and PwC consultant in K-FON project.
Is there a BCom course in technical university?
Why did Space Park authorities fail to have even an iota of doubt when Swpana said that she had obtained a BCom degree from Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Technological University which is akin to our APJ Abdul Kalam Technical University ? The fake certificate was verified as an authentic document by PwC, Vision Technology and Knowy which was entrusted by them for examining the certificate. Knowy which examined the certificate gave a clean chit to Swapna.
Despite contacting Knowy director Vijaypal Singh over phone several times, he sought to avoid the questions related to the matter. Vision Technology did not react even once. Despite knowing at one glance that it is fake, it is strange that the authenticity of the certificate didn’t come to their notice. KSITIL has not even seen the original copy of the certificate. They only had the PDF copy of the fake document. One must realize that the authorities turned a blind eye to this kind of fraud in a state where youths are rejected from the employment process merely on the basis of minor mistakes.
Swapna's arrival brings second work order in two months
Within two months of Swapna Suresh's appointment, the government gave another contract of Rs 17.65 lakh to PwC in the Space Park project through KSITIL. The task entrusted to them was to prepare a possibility report and market report for attracting investments in Space Park from Antrix Corporation Ltd, the marketing arm of ISRO. Of Rs 17.65 lakh, Rs 10.41 lakh was given to PwC.
With controversies gaining momentum, the PwC could not receive the remaining amount. In short, from Space Park alone the PwC received Rs 29.47 lakh which included Swapna Suresh's consultancy charge of Rs 19.06 lakh. Had they received the full money for the second contract, the amount would have crossed Rs 38 lakh.
Had the authorities appointed a space technology expert as consultant in place of Swapna, her assistance would have not been needed in preparing the report.
U-turn in the meeting held in May
A strange U-turn was witnessed in the Space Park review meeting held on May 22. The meeting decided to remove Swapana Suresh whom M Sivasankar had described as someone who could attract investments even from UAE, on the grounds that she lacked the required competence for the job. However, the decision was never implemented.
It was only after Swapna Suresh was arrested in the gold smuggling case that KSITIL dumped her. The meeting found that actually a person with expertise in engineering was needed for the post. However, there is no reply as to why this was not thought of while appointing Swapna Suresh.
Law Department's Black Hole
After Swapna's appointment triggered a major controversy, Sanjay M Kaul who held the charge of IT department wrote a file noting on July 23; "The PwC contract in K-FON project is being scrapped because of the appointment of a person with a criminal background." Exactly one hour later, finance additional chief secretary Rajesh Kumar Singh wrote `May Agree'. After going through the file notes of the two senior officers, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan pointed out - submit with chief secretary’s opinion after law department's perusal.
The file which went to the law department surfaced only after five months. The order restraining PwC came out just three days before the expiry of K-FON contract. In short, the government itself had paved the way for PwC's honourable exit to avoid the ignominy of being sacked.
Was Swapna part of K-FON?
The letter written by under secretary N C Santhosh to KSITIL on behalf of IT Secretary on August 8 is quite strange. The question raised was whether Swapna intervened in the K-FON project at any stage. KSITIL gave a reply on August 17 that she didn’t intervene in any manner. This reply was enough for the IT department to get away with, should Swapna's intervention get confirmed at any stage.
Reply of Amarchand Mangaldas group's advocate
KSITIL made an attempt to shift the entire blame on PwC when the appointment issue rocked the state. It served the first legal notice through Lex Exports advocates K A Abdul Salam, Sunil P Mohammad to PwC pointing out that the contract will be terminated on July 13. The reply given by Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas Group's white collar defence lawyer Anuj Beri on July 24 made the KSITIL MD a defendant. PwC rejected the entire allegations that were made against the agency. The recommendation for the appointment came from the government itself, the PwC pointed out.
Excerpts of the letter written by KSITIL MD who got annoyed by the PwC response; “Amazingly, in the Reply Notice, the consultant (PwC) has come up with untrue facts and personal imputations on the KSITIL MD and the office of KSITIL without any proof, except bald statement. It is enough to conclude that the consultant has acted in gross violation of the generally accepted professional standards and practices."
Despite asking for the letters exchanged between PwC and KSITIL through the Right to Information Act, the request was declined. Even the minutes of the Director Board meeting were not provided on the grounds that the matter is pending investigation.
The appeal questioning the denial of RTI request was also rejected by the KSITIL MD who is also the appellate authority. After this letter, KSITIL and PwC fight turned face to face. With the issuance of a restraining order, the fight entered the court. For the first time PwC made it public that Swapna was appointed on the direction of the government.
A strange loop
When two persons are caught for committing an irregularity, one of them tries to shift the entire blame on the other to escape. The government did exactly the same in this particular case.
It took five months for the government to even order a preliminary probe into Swapna's appointment.
The PwC had raised in the court, the inappropriateness of putting the entire blame on it for an appointment which was done on the recommendation of the government.
Had gold smuggling not been unearthed in July, by now the state government would have spent Rs 38.16 lakh on Swapna Suresh.
More than financial losses, the gold smuggling case exposed the extent of give and take happening in the corridors of power.