18 Sep 2023 3:56 PM GMT
The Supreme Court on Monday adjourned the hearing of a plea filed by Tamil Nadu Director of Vigilance and Corruption (DVAC) challenging a Madras High Court order ruling out a fresh inquiry ordered by the state government against former chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami in connection with an alleged highway tender scam. A bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Bela M Trivedi was hearing...
The Supreme Court on Monday adjourned the hearing of a plea filed by Tamil Nadu Director of Vigilance and Corruption (DVAC) challenging a Madras High Court order ruling out a fresh inquiry ordered by the state government against former chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami in connection with an alleged highway tender scam.
A bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Bela M Trivedi was hearing a special leave petition by the anti-corruption directorate against the high court’s decision to dismiss a plea seeking an investigation into the role of the former chief minister in the alleged scam. Palaniswami, the general secretary of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), served as the head of the state government between 2017 and 2021. He has been accused of awarding contracts in the highway department based on favouritism during his tenure as the chief minister, although an earlier inquiry conducted by the DVAC cleared him of suspicion. Recently, the government led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) ordered a fresh inquiry, leading to the high court criticising this ‘volte-face’ as politically motivated.
During today’s hearing in the Supreme Court, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal appeared for the anti-corruption directorate. He began arguing, “The minister’s own son-in-law received all the contracts and this is not disclosed to anyone. It’s so blatant and shocking!”
But before Sibal could continue, Senior Advocate C Aryama Sundaram cried foul, alluding to the directorate purportedly working in collusion with the ruling DMK party. In support of this contention, he pointed out that Sibal, after having appeared for the private complainant and DMK leader RS Bharathi in the last round of litigation, was representing the DVAC now. Sundaram argued –
“In the earlier round, my learned friend appeared for the DMK complainant. Now he is appearing for the DVAC. Having appeared for complainant, who is a DMK member, and after the court found against the complainant, my learned friend is now appearing for the DVAC. This, itself, shows the complicity.”
On being questioned whether he had represented Bharathi earlier, Sibal said, “Yes. But interest is exactly the same. There’s no conflict.”
“That’s my point,” Sundaram exclaimed, before adding –
“I raise a strong objection to this. Justice must be seen to be done. What unbiased approach can the DVAC show if my learned friend has appeared for the complainant as well? The case is that there is a conspiracy between the complainant and the DVAC...Now my learned friend who appeared for complainant is appearing for the DVAC. The high court judge found that [a fresh inquiry was ordered] because of a change of government. The case has been reopened by the DVAC because the DMK is now in power. My learned friend appeared for the DMK complainant…”
Although the bench refused to delve into the aspect regarding which political party was in office currently, Sibal offered to withdraw from the case, saying, “We are not interested in a brief. If there was a conflict of interest, I would have recused. But nevertheless, if my learned friend does not want me to appear, I'll withdraw. Someone else will appear.”
Sundaram protested. “It’s not a question of not appearing, I want to point out...”
Justice Bose intervened at this juncture and directed the hearing to be rescheduled after a week. “Okay, we will not pass any order. List after one week.”
“Alright, let it come up after one week and someone else will appear. That's their main objection,” Sibal assured the bench.
Sundaram chimed in, “Justice must not only be done but seen to be done!”
In parting, Sibal shot back, “I do not know if justice is seen to be done when all World Bank contracts are given to the minister’s own son-in-law and no one investigates the matter…Absolutely shocking! And then he is protesting…”
The case revolves around allegations of corruption connected with the allocation of road and bridge construction and maintenance tenders in the state. Among the officials alleged to be involved in the scam was former chief minister and AIADMK leader Edappadi K Palaniswami. The Tamil Nadu Director of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, however, had earlier given a clean chit to former chief minister and AIADMK leader Edappadi K Palaniswami, on grounds that a preliminary inquiry yielded no material to proceed against him.
While hearing a petition filed by former DMK Rajya Sabha member RS Bharathi calling for an investigation into the former chief minister’s involvement, the Madras High Court in October 2018 directed a transfer of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The central agency was asked by the single judge to conduct a preliminary investigation and register a case on finding any cognisable offence. Both Palaniswami, who was the incumbent Tamil Nadu chief minister then, and the DVAC appealed this decision, leading to the Supreme Court setting aside the impugned order and remanding the matter to the high court for reconsideration in August of last year. While passing this order, a bench headed by former Chief Justice NV Ramana noted that the high court had neither perused DVAC’s report, nor made Palaniswami a party to the litigation before transferring the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Subsequently, during the high court’s reconsideration, the state public prosecutor revealed that the earlier preliminary report submitted by the state vigilance and anti-corruption director had been rejected by the vigilance commissioner, prompting a fresh inquiry to be ordered by the Tamil Nadu government. However, Justice Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court, upon reviewing the preliminary inquiry report, found that the five allegations against Palaniswami had been adequately addressed, and the investigating officer had determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges. Not only did the high court rule that there was no basis for a fresh inquiry, since the government’s decision appeared to be driven solely by a change in political leadership rather than any change in circumstances, but the court also dismissed Bharathi’s petition seeking a probe in Palaniswamy’s role in the alleged highway tender scam.
Director of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption v. Edappadi Palaniswamy & Anr. | Special Leave Petition (Criminal) No. 11315 of 2023