Garlic scam: Whistleblower ready to assist CID

‘No need to verify my claims; I stand by all charges’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Former Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Thushan Gunawardena questions the rationale behind the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) seeking to question journalists including editors of Sinhala and English national newspapers on the recent exposure of state-owned Lanka Sathosa Ltd (LSL) as a corrupt enterprise.

Gunawardena emphasised that the garlic scam exposed by him in his then capacity as the Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) was just one such corrupt deal.

Calling himself a whistleblower, an irate Gunawardena said that in the wake of intimidation and threats, he had e-mailed his resignation letter to the CAA Chairman, retired Maj. Gen. Shantha Dissanayake, on 21 Sept. “I haven’t received an acknowledgment from the CAA Chairman yet, Gunawardena told The Island yesterday (28) morning.

“Regardless of the Chairman’s response, I’m out,” Gunawardena said.

Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that he firmly stood by every word he had said about the garlic racket.

“As I felt a despicable attempt was being made to hush up the garlic scam, I decided to go public,” Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena said that the racketeers’ plan had gone awry due to the CAA raid on Welisara warehouse. The Sathosa plan was to condemn two container loads of 56,000 kilos of garlic bought at less than Rs 120 per kilo from the harbour, sell the consignment to a regular supplier at Rs 135 a kilo and buyback the same lot at Rs 445 a kilo, Gunawardena said.

Pointing out that senior management representative DGM (Finance) Susiri Perera had been arrested along with several other employees in that connection, Gunawardena said that the Trade Ministry owed an explanation as Sathosa came under its purview. Following the media exposure, Sathosa had no option but to rescind the agreement with the supplier and sell the stock of garlic through its network of outlets, Gunawardena said.

The CID named several journalists, including editors of The Island and the Divaina, following a complaint lodged by Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena. The CID also sought to question Lankadeepa journalists including its editor.

In spite of an assurance received by the media Monday night that the CID wouldn’t seek statements from the media, the CID turned up at Lankadeepa offices yesterday (28) morning. The assurance was given after Monday’s Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in the absence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is yet to return from the US.

During post-Cabinet media briefing, the media sought an explanation from Minister Alahapperuma regarding the police seeking statements from the media. Expressing his deep regret, Minister Alahapperuma said that the police shouldn’t have sought to question journalists in that regard under any circumstances.

The Media Minister said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had made it quite clear the media shouldn’t be questioned and Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Weerasekera, too, agreed.

However, Lankadeepa Editor Siri Ranasinghe told The Island yesterday that in spite of the assurances received from the government, the CID arrived at the Lankadeepa editorial in the morning. “We declined to make statements today. As they pressed for an appointment, we asked them to come back on 03 Oct.”

 Gunawardena said that in addition to the print media and television coverage, garlic scam had received considerable attention in the social media. What was going on at Sathosa reflected the deepening economic crisis with several hundred container loads of food and other essential stuff held up at the Colombo harbour due to the inability of importers to clear them, Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena said that importers hadn’t been able to do so as the banks could not release US dollars. According to him as many as 800 containers had been held up due to Sri Lanka’s inability to pay for imported goods. It would be a grave blunder on the government’s part to confiscate such containers and make goods available through Sathosa outlets, Gunawardena said, urging the government to review its strategies.

“We are paying a very heavy price for not prudently managing Sathosa,” Gunawardena said. Declaring the absence of proper oversight mechanism, auditing, negligence and punitive action encouraged waste, corruption and irregularities, Gunawardena said Sathosa was a case in point. “Sathosa cannot be examined in isolation. Three other sister organisations, too, should be probed,” Gunawardena said, adding that he first got to know about the setup when Chamal Rajapaksa holding the trade portfolio asked for a report on them. The examination had revealed many crooked deals and on the instructions of Minister Rajapaksa, several cases were reported to the CID, Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena said that he had personally briefed the CID on corruption in enterprises coming under the purview of the trade ministry. Gunawardena explained how costly transactions had been carried out at the expense of the taxpayer regardless of the party in power. Declaring that he had received the appointment with the blessings of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Gunawardena said that Sathosa and other such enterprises were nothing but a heavy burden on the people.

Gunawardena revealed that in his report to Minister Chamal Rajapaksa and he had recommended the closing down of two enterprises coming under the Trade Ministry as such waste, corruption and irregularities couldn’t be condoned. Gunawardena urged Parliament to probe the enterprises coming under the trade ministry without further delay.

Gunawardena said that he sincerely hoped the top SLPP leadership would realise how poor management at key ministries undermined the government was. The sugar scam, unprecedented shortage in rice as well as continuing shortage of cement and milk powder indicated rapidly deteriorating situation.

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