COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is “concerned” about the charge made by Fairfax Media that in 2009-2011, when he was Minister of Agriculture, an Australian company was asked to give a donation to his political party to get contracts for World Bank-funded sewerage and dam projects.
On Thursday, the President ordered the Attorney General to investigate the charge even as he issued a statement denying that he had ever indulged in corruption in his political life or encouraged any one to indulge in it.
But according to sources in the Presidential Secretariat, Sirisena doubts the credibility of the Sri Lankan agent of the company, Snowy Mountain Engineering Company (SMEC), who had said in emails to his principals that a political donation was sought by Sirisena and his un-named Coordinating Secretary.
He wonders if it was a plant by an interested party to tarnish his image as a clean politician at a time when he is making Herculean efforts to bring to book corrupt leaders of the predecessor Rajapaksa regime.
Sources also said that the sacked Sri Lankan agent of SMEC, who had made a reference to the need to offer a bribe in emails to the company, may have done it to cover up his own incompetence or to siphon off the money.
The President also wonders why the charge is being made now, when the alleged incident had taken place way back in 2009. He suspects that it could have been meant to serve a Sri Lankan political interest group when he is on an anti-corruption crusade and when he has threatened to reveal some “secrets” regarding the Rajapaksa era which will damage the image of former President and his cohorts.
It is also noted that the Australian company concerned, the iconic Snowy Mountain Engineering Company (SMEC) has confirmed that no bribes were actually paid, though the money, LKR 2.5 million (Australian dollars 27,000), was withdrawn by its now disgraced Si Lankan agent.
According to a Fairfax Media investigation, which was subsequently published as a story in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sri Lankan manager of SMEC had sent emails to two of his Australian colleagues to say that to get the US$ 2.3 million sewerage project and a US$ 1.82 million dam project, he has to make a political contribution to Sirisena to be used to fund the ruling party in the coming elections.
He wanted to “inform the Minister/Coordinating Secretary” of the size of an alleged kickback and that he needed to “prioritize” certain payments to unnamed parties “since the signing of the contract would depend on it.”
The Manager had met Sirisena in 2009 and emailed the company to say that Sirisena was “secretary of the ruling party - a powerful man in the present administration who may request something out of the way – funds for the party.”
Two days later, he wrote another mail about his meeting with Sirisena.
“He (Sirisena) said there will be elections in the near future and he wants to know whether SMEC could make a donation for the elections. He (Sirisena) detailed me to discuss with his Coordinating-Secretary. Coordinating Secretary said that this is the way it goes before signing the cabinet papers. He wants us to propose an amount/percentage of the contract value. If you could advice me on the amount or percentage based on the financial figures, I could inform the minister/Coordinating Secretary,” the email said.
Twelve days later, the manager wrote another email saying that un-named “key people” had asked for approximately 1% of the total contract.
“The key people have now disclosed their cost as Sri Lankan Rupees 2.5 million (Australian dollars 27,000). Since the signing of the contract would depend on our agreement to honor the cost of Rs.2.5 million, we have to prioritize that,” the email said.
According to Fairfax Media Investigation, SMEC accounts reveal that Australian dollars 27,000 was withdrawn in cash by the Sri Lankan manager. SMEC has confirmed a “request for a political donation” but insists an internal investigation found no donation and that any payments made were not improper. The SMEC has referred its internal inquiries to the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
Strangely, the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is quiet on the issue ,though one its leaders Wimalaweera Dissanayake MP, has called for a “domestic probe” into the charge. But the State Minister of Finance, Lakshman Yapa Abeyewardena said that government would take legal action against those who level bribery charges against the President.