New Delhi/London: The Enforcement Directorate (ED) believes it may have cracked the link between businessman Robert Vadra and a London property allegedly bought with dirty money that he has repeatedly denied owning.
The reported breakthrough came with the arrest last week of controversial NRI businessman C.C. Thampi, who is alleged to have aided Vadra in investing ill-gotten wealth in property abroad.
Thampi has been arrested as part of a Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) investigation involving Vadra and a plush London property.
The property in question stands at Bryanston Square in central London. ED investigators have long suspected that the property has been held by different companies, including Thampi’s, on behalf of Vadra since 2009, when it was first purchased to round-trip the alleged illegal proceeds of a petroleum deal signed during the tenure of the Congress-led UPA.
Vadra, married to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, is the son-in-law of interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Thampi, a businessman involved in hospitality, is also alleged to be a close aide of the Gandhis.
A crucial piece of evidence that the ED claims to have in the case is a series of emails — reportedly discovered by the income tax department in a raid against arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari in 2016 — that detail a £66,000 renovation job on the Bryanston Square property allegedly paid for by Vadra.
ThePrint approached Vadra’s lawyer K.T.S. Tulsi through a phone call and text for comment on the ED’s allegations, but was yet to receive a response. A text has also been sent to Thampi’s lawyer Raju Ramachandran. This report will be updated when a response is received.
Allegations date back to 2008
In 2008, state oil major ONGC decided to build a petrol-chemical complex in a special economic zone in Gujarat’s Dahej. In December that year, the ONGC commissioned Samsung Engineering to build a part of the project, and the South Korean company allegedly hired suspected arms dealer Bhandari’s Santech International FZC for consultancy services.
Bhandari, a fugitive, is currently under investigation on multiple charges, including allegedly “fixing a deal” for the Indian Air Force.
According to the ED, Samsung paid Santech nearly $5 million in June 2009. This sum, investigators claimed, might be kickbacks in exchange for help securing the deal.
In 2009, the same year it was paid $5 million, Bhandari’s Santech purchased London’s Bryanston Square house for £1.9 million from a private company named Vertex.
Vadra, investigators said, was in constant touch with Bhandari when he purchased the mansion.
In 2010, the ED claimed on the basis of purported emails between a relative of Bhandari and a Vadra aide, the mansion was renovated at a cost of nearly £66,000 on behalf of the Gandhi son-in-law.
Then, the property was allegedly again transferred to Vertex in 2010. The same year, on 18 June, the house was bought by Thampi through SkyLite Investment FZE, a company he owned, for £1.9 million. This transaction has raised questions because it doesn’t seem to take into account the seller’s expense on renovation.
“This property was purchased in 2009 by Sanjay Bhandari for £1.9 million and sold in June 2010 for the same amount,” the ED said in a submission to a special court in December 2018.
“Despite incurring additional expenses of £65,900 on renovation of this property, it was sold for £1.9 million,” the ED added.
On 25 June 2010, the amount received by Vertex was transferred back to Santech, the ED claimed.
In March 2011, SkyLite Investment FZE was renamed Mayfair Investment FZE, a fact ThePrint has confirmed through London land registry records. The ED sees the name change as a bid to conceal the transaction.
“The original name of the company that purchased the property was SkyLite Investment until September 2011. It was changed as an afterthought to confuse investigators and make the web of transactions more complex,” an ED source said.
Around this time, Thampi also transferred his shareholding in SkyLite to his nephew Geevar Vadakkthelu Cheru, who is said to be a UAE-based cab driver.
‘Owner by proxy’
According to the ED, the Bryanston Square mansion is “beneficially controlled” by Vadra, which means he owns it by proxy.
“This [sale and resale at same amount] gives credence to the fact that Sanjay Bhandari was not the actual owner of the property but it was beneficially owned by Robert Vadra, who was incurring expenditure for the renovation of this property,” the ED said in the court submission.
“From various emails exchanged between Sumit Chadha (a close relative of Sanjay Bhandari in UK), Robert Vadra and Manoj Arora, personal assistant to Robert Vadra, it emerges that Vadra was beneficially controlling the aforesaid property and not only executing renovation work of this property through Sumit Chadha but also arranging for the funds for the same,” the ED said in its 2018 submission.
“This fact is further inferred from the email addressed to ‘M’ by Sumit Chadha… enclosing therewith item-wise expenses incurred and expenditure projected in future for the said property even after the sale of the said property to SkyLite Investment FZE,” the ED added.
The ‘M’ in question is believed to be Vadra’s aide Manoj Arora.
One of the other factors driving the ED investigation is the fact that Vadra owns a company, SkyLight Hospitality, that shares its name with Thampi’s.
Another factor, according to ED investigators, is that they claim to have found no business activity conducted by SkyLite or Mayfair since its incorporation. Despite this fact, they claim, deposits to the tune of £1.9 million were made into its bank accounts just prior to the purchase of the London property.
According to ED investigators, SkyLite Investment was floated in April 2009 by Thampi only for the purpose of acquiring immovable assets.
“Thampi’s role surfaced during investigation under the provisions of the PMLA. He, along with Vadra and Bhandari, evolved a scheme of money laundering by way of transferring the proceeds of crime multiple times from one individual to another to make the trail more complex,” an ED officer said.
The controversial businessman
Cheruvahur Chakkutty Thampi is a Dubai-based businessman from Kerala who runs a hotel chain named Holiday Group in India and the UAE, and also has a restaurant chain in the Gulf country.
Apart from that, he also runs an engineering college in Kerala, Thejas Engineering College.
Thampi, the ED claimed, is close to the Gandhi family. He was arrested Friday after he arrived in Delhi in response to a summons from the ED.
Besides the case involving Vadra in which he has been arrested, Thampi also faces an ED investigation over alleged Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) violations to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore.
The ED also booked him under the PMLA for allegedly wrongfully securing approval for his engineering college in 2009.
There are conflicting accounts of how Thampi came in contact with Vadra.
According to ED records accessed by ThePrint, Vadra admitted to having met Thampi on a flight. Vadra’s associates, however, told the investigative agency that they were introduced through Sonia Gandhi’s personal assistant Madhavan.
‘Everyone knows him here’
When ThePrint visited the Bryanston Square property in September 2018, it was locked. The concierge of the complex, however, told this reporter that Vadra was a “frequent visitor” to the flat but was last seen “four to five months ago”.
“Everyone knows him here,” said the concierge. “But he and his family are not the most friendly people. They do not talk much and keep to themselves.”
“It appears that they are very secretive,” he added. “Even the entry to their house is separate and doesn’t go through the complex.”
The property is one of several London assets Vadra is accused of buying by round-tripping alleged kickbacks from two petroleum and defence deals, which sources said were struck in 2009 and 2005, respectively, while the UPA was in office. The properties include two houses worth £4-5 million and six other flats.
All these transactions are being investigated by the ED separately.