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Helicopter bribe issue to rock House during Budget session

BJP smells another Bofors, says won’t allow government to escape

BS Reporter  |  New Delhi 

With a growing litany of charges and counter-charges of bribery in the purchase of AgustaWestland helicopters, a complicated web of agents and sub-agents has emerged on the basis of reports in the Italian press and court testimony.

Defence Minister had referred the matter to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). “CBI has received the reference from the defence ministry and is in the process of examining the documents relating to the case. Based on the evidence, the investigative agency will decide whether to register a preliminary inquiry or a First Information Report (FIR) in this matter,” the investigation agency said.

That this issue of bribes by an Italian defence company to Indians is going to dominate the in is an understatement. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Prakash Javadekar now claims the Union government was aware of the illegal dealings of the past three months but didn’t start a probe.

In a letter to Javadekar, in December last year, the government had said the Ministry of Defence had asked the Ministry of External Affairs to get further details about the alleged illegalities from Italy and the UK. When the BJP leader had raised the issue in and had asked a question in the winter session last year, Antony said the government was aware of the allegations and probe by Italian prosecutors but there was no specific information of the illegal activities and the government had not started any formal probe.

BJP seniors have termed the deal another Bofors, referring to the famous scandal of the late 1980s that tarnished the Rajiv Gandhi government’s image. They say they’ll make the government explain in the of why it had not started an investigation earlier, when it was aware of illegal dealings. They also want to question the government on the response of the Italian and British governments on the information sought.

The ruling Congress today hit back at the BJP, accusing it of “politicising” the issue. Party spokesperson P C Chacko said, “The idea of purchasing these helicopters came up first when George Fernandes was the defence minister of the (BJP-led) NDA government” and “In 2003, the Democratic Alliance (NDA) government initiated it... Some decision was taken in 2003”. After the completion of processes, the deal was struck in 2010. Party General Secretary Digvijaya Singh also said the purchase from Italy was proposed by the NDA regime. “Our defence minister has handed it (probe) over to CBI. Had it been the NDA government, what would they have done? Can anyone be hanged without investigation?” he said.

BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told a press conference the UPA was “the most corrupt government since independence. The BJP is determined to raise this issue inside and outside Parliament and seek accountability from the prime minister, Sonia Gandhi (party chief) and the defence minister.” Adding: “We all know how in the Bofors case, the Congress government sought to bail out Quattrocchi (the Italian businessman, allegedly at or near the centre of the scandal).” The chopper deal, he underlned, had the “makings of a second Bofors scam”.

In court
In Italy, the proceedings of the court case against Italians, Americans and Indians were public knowledge. Some newspapers reported the charges that AgustaWestland paid bribes worth ^51 million to “agents” to swing a deal for 12 VVIP helicopters for the Indian Air Force were based on the statements of Lorenzo Borgogni, former head of external relations for Finmeccanica, the company in question. But Borgogni’s testimony during cross-examination was that the information about the bribery was based on “rumours” he had heard within the company.

According to a transcript of Borgogni’s cross-examination on November 15, 2012, in a court in Naples, he’d claimed there were two “agreements” between certain individuals within AgustaWestland and each of the suspected agents, Guido Haschke and Michel Christian, to pay bribes worth ¤^41 million, later raised to ¤^51 million. However, under cross-examination, Borgogni said he was not sure of the amount of bribe, “I can’t tell you this with any accuracy. I only know that the payout was around ^41 million and I heard rumours in the company that Orsi (Giuseppe Orsi, former managing director of Finmeccanica) had various meetings with this individual from Lugano (later clarified as Haschke), with a view to increasing the payout to 51 million”.

On further cross-examination, on whether these were “mediation agreements” and if between AgustaWestland and each of the individuals or companies, Borgogni said: “They come from within the company and are heard by a series of people and then they come and report back to me, you know...”

First Published: Thu, February 14 2013. 00:50 IST