The arrest of the President’s Chief of Staff while allegedly accepting a 20 million bribe may have seriously damaged Maithripala Sirisena ’s image and weakened his position within the tenuous coalition.
Sirisena was reportedly visibly shaken when a senior aide told him on Thursday that his Chief of Staff I. H. M. Mahanama had been caught a few minutes earlier while counting 20 million rupees at the Taj Samudra car park given by an Indian investor in the Kantale Sugar factory which has been put up for privatistion.
“May ape Mahanama?! (Our Mahanama?)” the president reportedly asked twice, not believing that his trusted aide had been arrested following a sting operation four weeks in the making.
Mahanama retired recently from the Ministry of Lands where he was secretary and he is regarded as the key figure who had allegedly obstructed the Indo-Singaporean joint venture that wants to invest $100 million in the defunct Kantale Sugar factory.
Following his retirement last month, Mahanama was chosen to be Sirisena’s Chief of Staff because of the long association between the two men, official sources said.
The second man arrested along with Mahanama on Thursday was Piyadasa Dissanayake, the Chairman of the State Timber Corporation. That appointment was also made by Sirisena as Minister of Environment.
The two men had initially demanded 540 million rupees to sweeten the sugar deal for the Indian and Singapore investors, but later reduced their “fee” to 100 million, according to the bribery detectives. The two men were receiving the first tranche of 20 million rupees when they were caught.
“The President was informed about the involvement of some officials in his secretariat, but he did not know who the target was until the arrest,” an official involved in the sting said.
The President’s office issued a statement on Thursday night in a bid to deflect responsibility. In his rush, he may have also inadvertently convicted the two men even before they were formally charged.
The president “advised the authorities to strictly enforce the law against the two offenders,” the president’s statement said, virtually pronouncing them guilty.
However, political sources say the incident is a major setback for Sirisena who is embroiled in a cold-war power struggle with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Sirisena had used the Central Bank bond scam to discredit Wickremesinghe’s United National Party, arguing that the fugitive former central bank governor Arjuna Mahendran was a nominee of the Prime Minister.
The tables have now turned. By Sirisena’s own logic, he should accept responsibility for Mahanama taking a bribe from a foreign investor. Sirisena was dislodged from his moral high ground last month following reports that his daughter had obtained a liquor licence although he himself had restored a ban on women buying or serving liquor at restaurants.
The sugar deal that went sour is only making things worse for Sirisena.
Private anti-corruption activist Keerthi Thennakoon questioned why Mahanama was made President’s Chief of Staff despite long-standing allegations of corruption against him from his days at the Lands Ministry.
Sirisena attempted to discredit the UNP over the bond scam, but the sugar scandal could be a blot on Sirisena’s record and strengthen allegations of other wrong doings including in the purchase of a naval craft from Russia.
The Presidential Secretariat has denied any wrong doing in buying a vessel from Russia at a cost of over $100 million, but Sirisena’s high officials being implicated in corruption could raise fresh questions about other transactions too.