BY Kavindya Chris Thomas
UNP strongman, former Finance Minister and incumbent Foreign Minister in the Good Governance Government, Ravi Karunanayake, provided his testimony before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Treasury Bond issues last Wednesday (2). While it might have been an obvious strategic move, most definitely recommended by his high-calibre attorneys, Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s testimony of complete ignorance caught many off guard, as the proverbial rug of ‘Good Governance’ was pulled out from under them.
The former Finance Minister had been publicly accused – according to him due to the influence of the mass media and opposing parties that are hostile to him, which he of course, attempted to lament about during his testimony before the Commission – of being involved in the controversial 2015 Treasury Bond auction of the Central Bank alongside one particular primary dealer known as the Perpetual Treasuries of one Arjun Aloysius- also the son-in-law of the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. However, it was only since last January that did many startling new revelations surfaced regarding the matter during the hearing of the Presidential Commission.
And this week, the tension that was building up from January onwards reached the boiling point when the former Finance Minister (now Foreign Affairs) marked his presence before the Commission to testify.
His testimony was based on two things; one, is the controversial undated letter he had sent to the former Central Bank Governor regarding a certain meeting at the Central Bank and secondly regarding the luxury penthouse that was allegedly purchased for the Karunanayake family, by none other than PTL’s Arjun Aloysius. Karunanayake’s attorneys explicitly mentioned that even though the matter of the letter might be under the Commission’s current mandate, Karunanayake will nonetheless be complying to provide his statement on the matter of the penthouse which has no direct relevance with the Commission’s jurisdiction
Minister Karunanayake’s testimony before the Commission did not go as smoothly as one would have expected. The first of many warnings came from the Commissioners during Karunanayake’s attempted monologues for a question put forward by the Additional Solicitor General Dappula de Livera.
Karunanayake launched into a sermon about the judiciary being independent under the Good Governance system which he was a prime component of to ask questions from a “very powerful Cabinet Minister” to which the Commissioners Supreme Court Judges Kankanithanthri T. Chitrasiri and Prasanna Sujeewa Jayawardena responded by warning the minister to refrain from “making additional comments when he could easily answer the questions.” The Minister had to be reminded that he was testifying before a Presidential Commission and was not at a “Political Forum”.
“I knew nothing,” claimed Foreign Affairs Minister Ravi Karunanayake, pleading complete ignorance regarding the lease and subsequent purchase of the luxury apartment at Monarch Residencies with funds from a company owned by Arjun Aloysius. His justification was that the leasing of the apartment under reference and its subsequent purchase through their family company – Global Transportation and Logistics Pvt. Ltd – “was of no relevance to me” adding that it was transacted by his family members.
This statement, obviously, prompted a salvo of questions from the Judges of the Commission and the Attorney General’s Department. “There is a limit to lying at this Commission, Minister,” ASG de Livera exclaimed upon listening to Karunanayake’s statement. In agitated response, the minister snarled, “I take offence at that comment! I’m under oath; not you!” He added that his family members had contacted the Wijesuriya family with regard to renting out the said apartment and claimed that he has had no communication with the witness Anika V. Wijesuriya, who provided the evidence regarding the apartment to the Commission. He pleaded ignorance about the lease agreement, the deed of transfer and of any other documents pertaining to the final transaction of Rs. 165 million, adding that it was the first time he was seeing them, when he was presented with the evidence at the hearing. “Why should I? I had no need of it,” he noted.
He testified that there was no reason to study these documents and claimed that he does not know whether his wife visited the apartment alone or with Aloysius, as it was testified before the Commission earlier. He also vehemently denied evidence presented to the Commission earlier that claimed it was Aloysius who had purchased the apartment for his family and claimed that the purchase was made with the funds of his family enterprise, Global Transportation and Logistics Pvt. Ltd. (GTL), which has assets amounting to almost Rs 4.5 billion.
However, he reiterated his denials when the Commission brought to his attention that evidence has been collected which establishes that the payments for the apartment were made by Perpetual Treasuries and that GTL has no records of such payments, saying that he had nothing to do with GTL business. He added that he was not aware of such matters since it was the family that had carried out the purchase after his complete removal from his companies after he obtained his ministerial portfolio back in January 2015.
When the Commission asked him whether, as a hypothetical question, he would have agreed to the purchasing of an apartment for him by an owner of a primary dealer company in the Treasury Bond market, attached to the Central Bank, the minister said he would not because it would not be appropriate for a Cabinet Minister to do so due to a conflict of interest. The minister also denied the evidence put forward by the Commission that claimed that the luxury apartment was an amalgamation of two apartments surmounting to 4,000 square feet.
However, according to the minister the apartment he had being residing in for the last nine months is a ‘simple three bed roomed apartment’ with only 1,900 square feet. His numerous invitations to come visit the apartment to the Commission’s observations were met with SC Justice Jayawardena’s cutting comment: “If you don’t know the difference between 2,000 square feet and 4,000, I’m very glad you’re not the country’s Finance Minister now.” However, the Commission took polite note of the contradiction the minister so emphatically pointed out.
The former Finance Minister was also questioned with regard to the apparent overseas visits he has gone on from June 2015 to April 2017, which had coincided with Aloysius’ trips abroad. ASG de Livera brought information to the Commission’s attention pertaining to 13 occasions where the travel plans of the minister and Arjun Aloysius to Singapore, have coincided. Some of which, it was stated, suggested that the minister and Aloysius have travelled in the same aircraft. That was also denied by the minister who claimed that he only met Aloysius on a few occasions. According to Karunanayake, he had only met Aloysius on several occasions during the 2016 Finance Asia events.
Bizarre Text Messages
Wednesday’s Commission hearing also revealed the first time mention of references made to the ‘PM’ and ‘RK’ through the text message data recovered from Aloysius’ mobile phone. The Commission heard that 8,600 pages of documents compiled of details that had been extracted from Aloysius’ personal mobile phone. Among them were several that the Attorney General’s Department said mentioned two people referred to variously as Hon. PM and RK’ or ‘PM or Hon. Ravi K’.
These references were in text messages received by Aloysius and discussed the obtaining of minutes of the Monetary Board. The Minister responded by denying knowledge of these text messages claiming that he did not know that RK was a reference made to him.
Among the mobile phone information presented to the Commission, which was only made available to the attorneys representing the Minister and Aloysius, were two text messages which referred to these individuals.
One such text message sent to Aloysius by his Executive Secretary Steve Samuel reminds Aloysius to obtain a copy of a certain Monetary Board meeting from ‘PM or RK’. Meanwhile, another deleted message to Aloysius’ phone claimed that approval is needed to start a certain gossip column to give ‘massive support to PM and Hon. Ravi K’. The Minister denied awareness of these text messages.
One text message reveal of an ex- employee of the television channel Swarnavahini who has been recruited by a different radio station which has financial connections to Aloysius. The message warns that the individual has no qualifications apart from his GCE Ordinary Level examination was fired from the television channel due to his political connections. It goes on to say that it is not good for “you [Arjun Aloysius] PTL and Ravi K” as this individual might seek to expose information to the public.
Among the other text messages were some which suggested that Aloysius had funded the ‘Sunday Leader’ newspaper which had been copied to Minister Karunanayake and requests made to the Minister through Aloysius, to delay certain bank actions of the Bank of Ceylon as well. The Minister denied knowledge of all of these messages or their contents.
Case of the Undated Letter
Minister Karunanayake said that the undated letter, sent to the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran was “completely an oversight.” He said that he had not indicated the date and the reference due to an oversight. When Additional Solicitor General wanted to know the reason as to the origin of such a letter the Minister explained the situation he had as the Finance Minister in the beginning of the 2015.
He said that there was an unaccounted debt in balance and an outstanding repayment amounting Rs 100 billion, when they assumed duties as the new Government in 2015. Karunanayake said there was a meeting on 26 February 2015 with Malik Samarawickrama and Kabir Hashim over the fund requirement of Rs. 75 billion for road development projects.
The meeting was held prior to the controversial bond auction that took place on 27 February 2015. When questioned he confirmed that there was no sudden need to raise money in February but the funds were required for the payments in Road Development Authority projects.
He added that Mahendran requested him to send a letter relating to what happened at the 26 February 2015 meeting between the three ministers and thereby he had sent the letter in May or June of 2016. This letter contained the idea that it was decided at the meeting on the fund requirement of the Government for Rs 75 billion.
The ASG cross examined the minister as to why there was no date or reference in the letter to which he responded saying it was an oversight. Then the ASG asked whether there was a copy or corresponding Ministry’s file relating to the letter. The witness said he forwarded the letter in response to a request made by Mahendran. The ASG repeatedly questioned him as to why he had not mentioned the person who requested the letter.
The ASG was of the view that this letter was created very recently because when it was produced before the Commission, claiming the letter was apparently created anew and ‘crisp.’ However, the minister denied the ASG’s stance and maintained what he said.
When the ASG was attempting to question further as to how the letter originated, the Commission said it was a waste of time because the witness has already made his stance before the Commission. However, there was a heated argument thereafter between the Commission and the ASG over the relevancy of further questioning on the matter.
Throughout his testimony, Minister Karunanayake maintained that his ignorance and lack of awareness on the past events. Apart from incomprehension of the matters surrounding the luxury penthouse, he also pleaded ignorance regarding the Treasury Bond auctions of the Central Bank that took place during his tenure. “I know nothing” has been his go-to safe word during previous occasions of scandals and it has certainly painted his picture now as well. However, the potential consequences of these mere words are yet to bear fruit.