AG fibs on Thomas charges

AG fibs on Thomas charges

Later does a U-turn; Sushma insists she brought issue to PM, HMs notice

AG fibs on Thomas charges

In what appeared to be an instance of the Centre attempting to brazen it out over the issue of Thomas’ appointment, Vahanvati informed the court that neither the corruption case nor the sanction given by the Kerala government for prosecution of Thomas was brought before the three-member committee.

The committee that went into the appointment of Thomas included Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister P Chidambaram and Opposition Leader in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj. Thomas was chargesheeted in 1992 for alleged involvement in a palmolein import case while he was Food and Civil Supplies Secretary to the Kerala government.

When the committee went into Thomas’ selection case, Swaraj had dissented, claiming  the panel could not appoint him as the CVC since he had been chargesheeted earlier. Vahanvati’s stand in court, therefore, implicitly raises questions about the Congress-led UPA government’s integrity on the appointment of Thomas. Vahanvati’s submission evoked a sharp response from Swaraj who described as “completely untrue” the Centre’s claim that the charges against Thomas were not brought before the committee.

“It is not at all true. In fact, it is a mis-statement. I personally brought this fact to the notice of the Prime Minister and Home Minister in the meeting itself even though they persisted with this appointment,” Swaraj said, adding she would approach the Supreme Court over the issue.

After the court proceedings, Vahanvati made a somersault, claiming: “It was never stated by me that this matter pertaining to palmolein oil case was not discussed by the committee members, and I wish to make that absolutely clear.”  He made the statement in view of reports that he informed the court that the criminal case against Thomas was not taken up by the committee.

“The court’s query was limited on what was circulated along with the agenda papers. That is the only question it was asking me and as a matter of fact I did say that what was discussed and what was not discussed is not relevant to the query. It may have been discussed, I do not know. There are no details,” he said.

But the Attorney General’s original submission before the court comes as a surprise because usually most high-level appointments, especially to constitutional and statutory posts, take place after due clearance by the Intelligence Bureau.

There is an established vetting procedure for serving or retired bureaucrats who the government wishes to appoint to key positions, including that of governors.

‘No rule’

According to Ajit Doval, a former IB Director, “there is no rule in government which says that an IB report is mandatory. But, as and when the government makes requests on information regarding any senior official, the agency provides it”.

In effect, Vahanvati’s submission before the Supreme Court Bench, headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia, meant that even the prime minister had not been kept informed about the pending chargesheet against Thomas.

When the court wanted to know if the issue of sanction for Thomas’ prosecution by the Kerala government and the chargesheet were presented before the selection committee, Vahanvati said: “It was not before the committee. The material pertaining to the sanction for prosecution under section 120B of the Indian Penal Code was not before the committee. The bio-data did not reflect this aspect before the committee.”

Apparently not satisfied with Vahanvati’s explanation, which reflected the mess the government finds itself over appointing a tainted bureaucrat as the head of the country’s principal watchdog agency, the Bench demanded that all files related to Thomas’ appointment be placed before it. Vahanvati assured that the four files would be placed before the court.

But the Bench, also comprising justices K S Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar, dug in. It said: “We are not going into the merits of the case. We want to know whether the material pertaining to chargesheet and the sanction were brought before the committee or not. How many people were in the zone of selection for the CVC? We also want to know about details of the empanelment”.

The Bench said it was making it clear that these aspects had to be examined at the very outset.

“We want to know whether relevant material was considered by the high-powered committee at the threshold or not? This is the priority on which we will go and not on the merits of the case,” the judges said, adding that it also wanted to know if other two officers on the panel suffered from any infirmity as was the case with Thomas and why he alone was preferred for selection as CVC.

The petitioner NGO, Centre for Public Interest Litigation, represented by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan has questioned the legality of the CVC’s appointment.  The CPIL and others have contended that Thomas was considered for the crucial post despite objections by the Leader of the Opposition.

The selection was in violation of Section 4 of the CVC Act as the Prime Minister and the Home Minister insisted upon his name despite objections by the Leader of the Opposition, which shows the government had decided in advance to appoint him, the petitioners contended.

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