An unsolicited offer by a mysterious American to gift $25 million each to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in Coimbatore and the reputable Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) in Pilani, had puzzled officials of the institutions and the US consulate alike 37 years ago, according to Wikileaks.
The donation offer, similar to the modern day Nigerian scam, had strings attached to it prompting both institutions to approach the US consulate in Chennai for advice. On October 7, 1975, TNAU’s first Vice Chancellor G Rangaswami had received a letter from American national J Barry Gertz living in Nevada, with a proposal to liquidate landholdings held by a family trust and donate the estimated sale proceeds of $25 million to the TNAU over a period of 12 to 15 years. But no one in the university had heard of Gertz.
When Rangaswami called him, Gertz said he had learnt about the TNAU from sources known to him and invited the Vice Chancellor to visit him for discussions.
When Rangaswami had asked his brother in the US to contact Gertz, the American proved elusive. Sensing something fishy, Rangaswami approached the United States consulate in Chennai in February 1976 for assistance in checking the genuineness of the gift offer.
In a Kissinger era cable titled JB Gertz, Reno, Nevada, dated February 9, 1976, a United States diplomat wrote to the American authorities saying: “Before taking any positive action on Mr Gertz’s offer, Dr Rangswami wishes to check, as discreetly as possible, the genuineness of the offer. Post would appreciate receiving complete findings and comments by cable ASAP.”
Two days later, the United States consulate official sent another cable on the same subject as BITS Pilani in Rajasthan officials too approached them seeking details about Gertz, who had sent an identical letter to the institution. “The amount of the offer is also $25 million and also requires liquidation of land holdings held by a family trust. The gift is conditioned on the Birla Institute’s effecting the liquidation of the properties. Gertz says that he would consider a matching funds programme and states that if the institute has benefactors who are not in a position to make a large donation now but who could purchase one of the Foundation’s properties, it should give Gertz the details so that the sale can be completed,” the cable said.
It is not clear if Gertz was traced as there are no further cables on the subject from the cache of released byWikileaks. Rangaswami is no longer alive and senior officials who had served the university then have all retired.TNAU officials were unable to comment if the donation was indeed received or was it a hoax.