by Frederica Jansz
In a blatant disregard of the laws of this country Chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines Nishantha Wickremesinghe admitted to The Sunday Leader that his son Shehan Michael Wickremesinghe violated Sri Lanka Customs regulations when he brought with him foreign exchange to the equivalent of Rs. 3.1 million in April this year and did not declare the cash as required by exchange control laws to do so. Nishantha Wickremesinghe said 80% of the loot including the gold Rolex watch stolen from his home in Mount Lavinia has been recovered after police arrested the thief.
Excerpts of interview:
FJ: What was the exact amount of foreign currency in cash stolen from your house in Mount Lavinia?
NW: The equivalent of 3.1 million rupees. I can’t remember the exact amount in foreign currency. (Pushed for a response Wickremesinghe 24 hours later said: “It was about USD 10,000 and around 8000 odd sterling pounds”.)
FJ: You were quoted last week in a national newspaper saying that your two sons who live in Australia gave you the cash. We have since found this not to be true since one son – Dilshan – lives in Sri Lanka.
NW: Yes that is true. The paper made a mistake. I referred to only one son – Shehan – who recently migrated to Australia. He brought the cash. He brought it with him when he arrived in April this year for the Sinhala New Year and gave to my wife. He said this was a thank you for us having paid millions of rupees for his education in Canada.
FJ: Who picked him up from the airport when he arrived?
NW: I did. I was in office I went and picked him up.
FJ: Did he declare the monies to Sri Lanka Customs?
NW: I don’t know. He brought it as pocket money – I don’t know if he declared or not – I picked him up he just walked out and I met him at the arrivals.
FJ: Why did he not declare the cash? After all, that is a requirement by law.
NW: A lot of people who bring money into the country for different purposes don’t declare the monies. People bring cash to invest in a car or buy a land but they have a fear psychosis of declaring the monies because they think that will lead to different connotations.
FJ: So is this why your son smuggled the cash in?
NW: He did not smuggle it! I don’t think he declared it either – nor did I tell him cause I did not think that it was necessary.
FJ: How did your son come to be in possession of such a large sum of foreign currency?
NW: He said he had collected these monies. Shehan was educated in Canada, from there he migrated to Australia. He said I am collecting this money from abroad I want to return all the money you spent on my education.
FJ: Why did you not deposit the cash in a bank account?
NW: The money was given to my wife. I told her not to keep it all over the place but to put it in a deposit. I told her to put it in a RFC account; that someday the children will come back to SL, so to let this money accrue for them – Unfortunately before she could do so this incident happened.
FJ: Where was the cash kept?
NW: It was in an envelope in a suitcase. We reside most of the time in Nuwara-Eliya. I am a planter by profession and work for Finlays. We use the house at Mount Lavinia which belongs to my mother-in-law only when we are in Colombo. We do not even have domestics in this house and eat from outside when staying there. I lead a very modest lifestyle. Even my job at SriLankan is on a voluntary basis.
FJ: For a tea planter who maintains your job at Sri Lankan is on a voluntary basis is it not unusual for you and your family members to have access to such a massive amount of cash?
NW: I have worked for 40 years… so I also have my reserves – I am not a politician I have led a very respectable life with a 40 year career in the corporate sector.
FJ: Did you not originally say that you were to take these monies to China?
NW: I was going to China. But that cash was separate. That too was stolen. I lost about 300 – 400 USD. The money I was taking to China was in a pouch.
FJ: How much of the foreign currency you lost has been recovered?
NW: About 80 percent. These monies have since been deposited in a Peoples Bank account in my wife’s name by the courts.
FJ: When you travel overseas on official work for SriLankan are you paid a per diem?
NW: Sri Lankan pays for my accommodation, food and laundry. The perdium depends on the actuals of the country.
FJ: So how much do you get?
NW: It can be USD 150 a day.
FJ: Do you have to return any of these monies if unspent?
NW: No. My bills are paid by the company. I do not really handle cash.
FJ: Who gave you the Rolex wristwatch worth Rs. 4 million?
NW: The wristwatch was a gift from both my sons and my wife on my 60th birthday. Personally I didn’t like the gift because it was cutting my hand.
FJ: Where did they buy the watch from?
NW: They bought it from overseas. I don’t know from where exactly.
FJ: You must surely know from where the watch was purchased. After all, it would have come with a money back guarantee.
NW: There is no guarantee. They just gave it as a gift. It is a very cumbersome watch. I wore it only once to please the children and my wife and kept it in a drawer thereafter in a computer table at the Mount Lavinia house. I did not value it that much. In fact, after the robbery I even told police that I did not know if the watch was an original or a fake. However I don’t think my children and wife would give me a fake.
FJ: Did you not ask them if indeed it was an original or a fake? Even after the watch was stolen?
NW: No I did not. But I am sure they would not have given me a fake.
FJ: On the subject of in-flight duty free sales, did you bypass tender procedure and personally choose a company?
NW: Yes. These days very few international carriers handle duty free sales in house. This was not the core business of SriLankan. So, I told my CEO to concentrate on the core business. When I went through the inventory there were large stocks of perfumes and jewellery and our monies were tied up – so I said we need to focus on the core business and outsource this aspect. To work out a formula. Most airlines outsource this aspect – so it was a matter of looking at some of the companies doing this. There was an American company called Phoenix I inquired and asked to get them down and said I would have a look at it.
FJ: So how did you work the deal?
NW: I said to work out where you earn more money. We were earning ’X’ number of dollars on the sales but at the same time we were carrying our own inventory where our money was tied up. So my CEO and team worked it out – Now we are getting more than double of the profit – they have to pay on the sales and per passenger – they pay a percentage on a seat.
FJ: Did you get any approvals for this contract before sealing it; since you ignored tender procedure?
NW: Since we are earning more than double the money we were getting all these days – the Board approved it on that principle that our revenue profit would go up. And that we would not hold any stocks. Also that an internationally reputed company would come in.
FJ: But the law dictates that, as a state enterprise you should have entertained bids. Why did you not do so?
NW: If you call for bids all odd, odd people will bid. We wanted persons already in this business. At that time Raju Chandiram was not involved. We dealt only with Dilan Wirasinghe. They then opened the Colombo office and recruited Raju as their Managing Director.
FJ: Did the fact that Raju Chandiram and you both served on the Board of SriLankan Airlines a few years ago help?
NW: No, that had nothing to do with it. Of course Raju and I were on the Board at the same time but that was many years ago.
FJ: Is it true that you were scolded in choice language by the President about this contract?
NW: The President was on a flight when he had inquired from Kapila “mokakda meka? mokakda me kerala thiyenne?” (what is this? What have you gone and done?) Thereafter, Kapila took him the Board papers and demonstrated what exactly it was – I told Kapila to go and clear it up, I don’t have skeletons in my cupboard or anything to hide. He met with Lalith Weeratunge and explained that this contract is in fact very lucrative for the airline.
FJ: Are you denying that the President was angry and yelled at you and the Minister?
NW: He was on a flight at the time. I was not there. So I cannot say. He had told Kapila…
FJ: It is rumoured that the gold diamond studded Rolex watch was given to you as a commission for having negotiated this deal with Phoenix.
NW: No! No! I am just being character assassinated by people. For me this was an honorary job. The wristwatch was a gift to me for my 60th birthday. I am not a wristwatch collector either. I do not get involved in this type of thing – getting commissions. I do what I have to by the company and it is completely an honorary position. Unfortunately because my Brother- in- Law is the President I have to live with this kind of accusation. COURTESY:THE SUNDAY LEADER