The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has sought prosecution sanction from the Union government against former defence secretary and Comptroller and Auditor General of India Shashi Kant Sharma, former Air-Vice Marshal Jasbir Singh Panesar, and three other Indian Air Force (IAF) officers in connection with the alleged Rs 3,727-crore AgustaWestland chopper scam, people familiar with the development said.
Sharma was Joint Secretary (Air) in the ministry of defence when the contract for supplying 12 VVIP helicopters was under consideration, and when operational requirements (OR) for the deal were being finalised. The contract – alleged violations and kickbacks in the deal became one of the biggest controversies during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime — was given to Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland in February 2010.
Sharma was later India’s defence secretary, between July 2011 and May 2013, and then CAG till 2017. This is the first time his name has come up in connection with the case.
The words “JS Air” – an apparent reference to the designation Joint Secretary (Air) — appeared repeatedly in Italian court judgments in the matter, as part of a note written by British middleman Christian Michel, who allegedly arranged kickbacks to politicians and officials in India.
“As JS (Air), Sharma was part of key meetings in the defence ministry,” said a CBI official when asked about the prosecution sanction. He declined to give any other details, while confirming the request was made in writing to the defence ministry. HT has seen the request document. The details of the alleged role played by Sharma in the case are not clear at this time.
Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act makes it mandatory for CBI to seek a prosecution sanction from the concerned department before filing a charge sheet against a government official.
“I had a long unblemished service record of over forty years and nobody can blame me for any malafide action or decision. I strongly and firmly deny any such frivolous allegation,” Shashi Kant Sharma told HT.
A second CBI officer, who asked not to be named, contended that Panesar and the three IAF officers played important and questionable roles in the purchase and testing of the AW-101 helicopters. More details of Panesar’s alleged role are not known at this time.
The three officers against whom sanctions have been sought from the defence ministry include deputy chief test pilot SA Kunte, Wing Commander Thomas Mathew, and Group Captain N Santosh. The three officers have retired.
Panesar and the three officers could not be reached. The office of the former air vice-marshal did not share contact details.
The second CBI officer added that a supplementary charge sheet, detailing the alleged roles played by Sharma, Panesar, Kunte, Mathew and Santosh, is ready and will be filed as soon as the government accords sanction. The charge sheet will also detail the role of about a dozen other officials and individuals that amount to conspiracy and violation under the prevention of corruption act, he added.
On Michel, the CBI supplementary charge sheet will explain how he paid bribes to Indian officials to influence the decision in the favour of AgustaWestland, and later destroyed the trail, said the second officer.
Michel was extradited to India in December 2018 and is currently lodged in Tihar jail.
CBI filed its first charge sheet in the case in September 2017, naming former IAF chief SP Tyagi; former Air-Vice Marshal JS Gujral; former AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini; former Finmeccanica chairman Giuseppe Orsi; Michel and his two associates, Guido Ralph Haschke and Carlo Gerosa; SP Tyagi’s cousin Sanjeev Tyagi; and Delhi-based lawyer-middleman Gautam Khaitan.
They have all denied any wrongdoing.
According to a note, allegedly written by Michel sometime in 2008 at his London office, 30 million euros were to be distributed among Indian bureaucrats, politicians, and air force officers.
The note used abbreviations of designations under the heads “AF” (which, investigators allege, meant air force), “BUR” (bureaucrats, according to sleuths), “POL” (politicians) and “Fam” (believed to be SP Tyagi’s family). The note mentioned that 6 million euros were for “AF”, 8.4 million euros for “BUR”, 3 million euros for “Pol” and 15-16 million euros for “Fam”.
Several of the abbreviations under the header were revealed by Guido Haschke to Italian investigators, according to court documents. The Italian court’s 2016 judgment in the case – it sentenced Orsi and Spagnolini – said that Haschke admitted to these expenses incurred by Michel on the Indian military, bureaucracy, and politicians. Spagnolini and Orsi were acquitted later by an appeals court in Milan in September 2018.
The CBI claimed in its first charge sheet (HT has seen a copy) that, in 2004, officials at Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Special Protection Group (SPG) and air force and ministry of defence officials, agreed to change the mandatory service ceiling of the helicopters from 6,000 meters to 4,500. This, it alleged, ultimately benefitted Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland.
CBI also says it has established a “money trail” of 62 million euros (around 415 crore) out of suspected 67 million euros (Rs 452 crore) in bribes allegedly paid to Indian officials through middlemen.
The irregularities in the award of contract to AgustaWestland led to estimated loss of 398.21 million euros (around Rs 2,666 crore) to the Indian government in the 556.262 million euros (Rs 3726.9 crore) contract, according to CBI.