Following is the second half of the column “Sunday Punch” and extracted from Sunday Times -TW
Ignorance as to the source of funds to pay the Rs. 1.45 million a month rent for eight months may have indeed been bliss for Ravi K but it soon became clear that the former finance minister and now foreign minister who had enjoyed the opulence only big money can buy had a whole lot of explaining to do. Not only to the presidential commission. But, more importantly, to the people of Lanka.
But first let’s briefly recap how the Penthouse Scandal broke.
The first cold winds of an impending storm blew on July 19th when a State Counsel told journalists that the witness to be summoned at the next sitting would surprise everyone. He was not joking. Or exaggerating the dynamite the witness would ignite and explode by the testimony she would give before the Presidential Commission come Monday the 24th of July. Her evidence would strike at the very core of the government, would become the acid test whether the Maithripala government stood by its Yahapalana principles or only paid lip service to it merely to show by words and not by deeds its dedication to just and transparent government, accountable to the people.
Cartoon added by TW from Ceylon Today
When Anika Wijesuriya, daughter of well known businessman Nahil Wijesuriya, took the stand to give evidence before the presidential commission and affirmed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, little did anyone realise that what she was about to reveal would soon rock the Government and would force it to decide between loyalty to a cabinet minister and its commitment to its Yahapalana policies.
Anika then went onto give a blow by blow account, how the entire transaction was done. In her words: “It’s a large apartment comprising 4,000 square feet as two separate apartments had been amalgamated and the Monarch Residencies management had declared it to be a penthouse. Minister Karunanayake’s wife had first come to see the apartment around 1.00 pm on Jan. 27, 2016 and after inspecting it the latter had called someone and about one hour later Arjun Aloysius had come there to my surprise as I knew him because he had been few years senior to me at Colombo International School.
The deal was discussed verbally with Arjun, who paid me cash Rs 1.45 million and a further Rs. 10.2 million by cheque, making a total payment of Rs 11.6 million. He told me verbally that even though he was taking the apartment on lease, it would be occupied by Minister Karunanayake and his family. “The lease agreement was signed between Walt and Row Pvt. Ltd., and I.” Anika told the Commission. It was on that basis that Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and his family took residence. Rent free. And Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister had no clue on what legal basis – whether he was a lessee or a squatter, a freeholder or a freebie – he and his family occupied the premises. He asked no questions and was given no lies.
But there was more to come from this young girl, still in her late twenties. She told the Bond scam commission that in July, 2016, there was news published on websites regarding the incident highlighting the Karunanayake family occupying an apartment, with the rental paid by Mr. Aloysius.
Anika, whose second name is Vinodani, said “Because of these media reports, Arjun Aloysius had asked me to destroy the lease agreement. He said he destroyed his copy of the lease agreement and asked me to do the same, but I was confused with the request because the documentation would generally be available at the public records room and did not do what he asked me to do,” Anika said.
“I also contacted Mrs. Karunanayake afterwards and talked about the media reports and their negative impact on me as the owner of the apartment. I asked Mrs. Karunanayake to either purchase the apartment or vacate it considering the circumstances. The Karunanayake family later conveyed their willingness verbally to buy the apartment and we settled on a price of Rs.165 million.”
If young Anika’s testimony was dynamite, what the Karunanayake owned Global Transport and Logistics’ chief accountant Brian Sinnaiah had to say when he took the stand was nothing short of nuclear. The testimony he gave may well have lifted the unfolding penthouse scandal to a higher level. Under oath, the Chief Financial Officer of Global Logistics and Transportation Brian Sinnaiah testified regarding to a loan facility taken by the company to purchase a penthouse on behalf of former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake.
This is what Sinnaiah, who described himself as a banker of over 30 years’ experience, had to say:
FIRST: 70% of the company shares are owned by OSM Holdings represented by the two Karunanayakes and the 30% of it is owned by Hampton Group, which is a foreign company represented by the two Lakshmi’s who live in Great Britain. Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who was a director of the said company, had stepped down from his post in January 2015 following the appointment as Finance Minister.
SECOND: He had received instructions in July 2016 from the two local directors of the company to seek a loan facility to purchase the said penthouse. The two directors are Mela Karunanayake and Onella Karunanayake, the wife and the daughter of Minister Ravi Karunanayake.
THIRD: Ravi’s company GLTC applied for a loan facility from Seylan Bank in the latter part of 2016 to purchase the said penthouse at Monarch residencies in Colpetty.
FOUR: Following the instructions, he, Sinnaiah, has sent an email to a Seylan Bank Senior Manager requesting a loan facility of Rs. 150 million to be paid in 15 installments.
FIFTH: The loan facility acquired to purchase the Penthouse was to be paid back using money belonging to GLTC Chairman T.V. Lakshmikanthan who lives in Britain. Lakshmikanthan’s money, of which the origin is undisclosed, was kept in the GLTC’s money safe since February 2016. Lakshmikanthan has visited Sri Lanka twice in February 2016 and February 2017. In both instances, Lakshmikanthan has placed Rs 70 million and Rs 75 million of his personal money in the GLTC money safe. But no receipt had been issued to him after receiving the money.
SIXTH: His chairman Lakshmikanthan came to the company on two occasions in February 2016 and February 2017 in a car. He said Lakshmikanthan carried the Rs 70 million and Rs 75 million on the said two occasions in two parcels. His Chairman told him to await further instructions on the money after he kept the money in the safe.
SEVEN: The Monarch Penthouse was purchased with the GLTC paying the installments of the loan taken from Seylan Bank. The first installment was due on October 2016. The company did not have sufficient funds to pay the installment. So I sought Miss Onella Karunanayake’s instructions. She told me that she would talk with the Chairman. Later on she got back to me and said to use Chairman’s money kept in the safe to pay the instalment.
EIGHT: Nine installments of the said loan were paid in the same fashion by using the Chairman’s money kept in the money-safe. The monthly instalments had been paid at the rate of Rs. 11 million for nine months. The cash was taken from the chairman’s safe and the installments were paid in cash.
NINE: There were no ledger entries in the GTLPL accounts books regarding these two cash inflows. The Rs 145 million cashed received and the nine installments of Rs. 11 million paid to the bank in cash.
Justice Chithrasiri observed that Rs. 70 million was a big amount and the witness had done something very foolish by accepting money without any documentation and going by the way the money had been used, several criminal offences had been committed under the money laundering laws.
But before the storm broke last week, Ravi Karunanayake had already received his summons to appear before the presidential commission of inquiry into the bond scam on July 25th. On Monday the 24th the day Anika gave her evidence, Ravi’s lawyer asked the commission to excuse him on that date he had to attend the cabinet meeting. The court fixed a new date, July 26th for him to present himself. On that day, Ravi’s counsel excused Ravi’s absence stating his client had to attend the Security Council meeting. Obviously the Presidential Commission had failed to realise the importance of being Ravi K when they had twice issued the summons without prior consultation with him as to when it would be convenient to spend a few minutes in their company.
As Ravi Karunanayake told reporters last Tuesday, “Don’t they know I am a Cabinet minister when summoning me to be present on Tuesday? I was summoned on the day I had to attend the Cabinet meeting. There is nothing to hide. I will answer any question asked and I will expose the truth to the entire country.” Even as the joint opposition rubbed its hands with great expectations that he would open a can of worms and the UNP announced it would suspend its decision depending on Ravi K’s answer to the serious allegations leveled against him, the nation waited with bated breath for the great day to dawn when the reigning resident by divine right of Monarch’s Rs 165 million penthouse suite would condescend to emerge from his swank top floor apartment to take the elevator down and take his place in the witness stand to ‘answer all questions asked’ of him and to ‘expose the truth to the entire country’.
But when the great day dawned and Ravi K took his stand it proved to be the greatest anti climax of the year. A puswedilla. Or what you’ll call a damp squib.
He answered all significant questions asked him with a studied ‘I know nothing’ and passed the buck to his wife and daughter. And, as for exposing the truth to the entire nation, he only exposed his own dodgy stance and his temporary bouts of amnesia. For over five hours he was questioned not only by the ASG Dappula De Livera but also by a Commissioner, Supreme Court Justice Prasanna Jayawardena, but he stubbornly stuck to his guns of ignorance. His stock reply was: ‘Ask the wife. Ask the daughter. I know nothing.’
Some of the piercing questions posed by Supreme Court Judge Prasanna Jayawardane and the answers Ravi Karunanayake gave in response will give you a fair idea. Space does not permit to give the whole transcript but six questions posed by Justice Jayawardane should give you the drift.
JUSTICE JAYAWARDENA: Your family knew there was no lease agreement signed with the owner of the house?
RK: I do not know that.
JUSTICE JAYAWARDENA: You said your family paid the rental to Walt and Rowes?
RK: I don’t know, they said it was to an accountant.
JUSTICE JAYAWARDENA: They had to know the lease agreement was with this company because it clearly says so in the agreement. Your wife and daughter are educated people so they must surely know there is a conflict of interest?
RK: No. They are not in the political arena so I don’t think they are aware.
JUSTICE JAYAWARDENA: So you are saying that they did not see anything wrong with their house rent being paid by a company which is connected to the stock market, the Primary market and the Excise Department?
RK: No. I didn’t know.
JUSTICE JAYAWARDENA: It is publicly known that Perpetual Treasuries Limited, Perpetual Capital Holdings and Walt and Rowes Associates are interconnected. So are you seriously telling us to believe you when you say you are unaware of these close associations which concern you?
RK: Yes. I was not.
JUSTICE JAYAWARDENA: We have given you every opportunity to tell us what you want to say. What you are basically telling us is that “I knew nothing”.
RK: Yes, I knew nothing.
That should give the gist of the ambit of Ravi’s professed ignorance.
But it must be stressed that though ignorance is no defense, neither is accepting a gift from a friend a criminal offense. But paying Rs 165m in cash, in installments of Rs 11 million a month with no records kept of cash received or spent is, of course, another matter and may well invite, as Supreme Court Justice Jayawardane observed, a money laundering probe.
Should the FCID investigate the matter further, it will be up to Ravi K to prove how he or his company earned the money, for under the money laundering act, the onus of proving one’s innocence is on the one accused, not for the prosecution to prove guilt. Thus ‘I know nothing’ answers may rule ok at a toothless presidential commission but may not suffice to escape doing porridge at a criminal court with bite.
The more serious question that faces the nation is what the UNP response is going to be. As it indicated on Tuesday, it will await Ravi K’s explanations to the presidential commission before passing judgment on his political future. Prime Minister Ranil Wicremesinghe must now express his view whether Ravi K’s profound ignorance profusely exhibited with his signature tune of “I know nothing’, will be sufficient to absolve him of the serious allegations leveled against him by witnesses under oath,
The all powerful Rajapaksa government fell not because they were found guilty of corruption by the courts. Even after two and a half years of the Sirisena government no one in that regime has still been convicted. But because the people’s perception was that they were corrupt. It must be acknowledged and hats raised all around that if not for the Yahapalana policies, no commission would have been set up in the first place and even if it was, no witness would have dared come forth and give evidence against a powerful sitting minister. But when what spouts from the commissions probing there is something rotten in the state of Yahapalanaya and there is no follow through, it does not require a joint opposition no confidence motion against Ravi K.
If no action is taken by President Sirisena to allay the worst fears of the masses that they had been betrayed again by their leaders who vowed to dawn a just, transparent government accountable to the people not even two years ago, then the nation would pass their own no confidence motion against this government come 2020 elections. And see it passed with an overwhelming majority. And they wouldn’t mind who the alternative is. For by then they would know that behind the mask of cherubs devils look alike whatever the hue.
Perhaps it’s best that Ravi Karunanayake reconsiders his position. And retires to his penthouse pad as the family man he says he is, and there in that cosy tree top nest, enjoy the company of his wife and daughters in solitude. Or else he might find his luxury suite besieged with the entire cabinet the day after the 2020 presidential election seeking asylum. Far better to retire with dignity and make the supreme sacrifice for the nation’s sake, for his party’s good and the people’s interest than dilly dally any longer before the naion’s contempt and take the whole government down with him, isn’t it? Especially when the writing is on the wall. With the word RESIGN writ large.
And the question must be asked: Is one man’s political existence worth the price the nation would have to pay if the masses lose trust and confidence in the President and the Prime Minister’s shining stance of placing principle before politics? If not, it will surely come to pass, that on the cross of a shattered faith would see nailed the nation’s forlorn Yahapalana hopes.