Siphoning of funds and money laundering are common in the dark, murky world of financial irregularities. However, once in a while, a silent whistleblower rises who blows the cover off the fraud, risking his/her own career and life to bring the predators to book, save public money and above all, have a clear conscience. Rajan NS pens a short fiction about one such whistleblower.
Early morning traffic on the road below and outside her window was beginning to send ripples of subdued noise into her half-awakened senses. Mala stirred in her sleep and reached for the alarm set for 6 am to turn it off even as it began to purr softly, bringing her to full wakefulness. She would have loved to just turn over and sleep for another half hour but she knew she could not afford that today. She had to rise and push away the blues. It was a Monday.
Mala reached for her phone and checked all her messages and mail. Good. Nothing demanded immediate attention except the regular 10 pm call from her mother, who lived in a lovable city about 250 kms away, a ‘grown-up’ big town, sprawling at the foot of mountains, smaller but far more beautiful than the metropolis Mala was working in. She was driving then and did not take the call, deciding that she would not stop the car to answer her mother immediately. She knew it was only mom checking if she was alright. Why wouldn’t she be, she wondered, every time her mother anxiously asked her the same question. She was 33, a Chartered Accountant and a professional occupying the position of a senior manager with a six-figure salary and perquisites in a large law, taxation and audit firm Law and Auditax Co Ltd and likely to break the glass ceiling someday soon.
So what if she was single and living by herself in a fourth-floor flat, on Chowdhury road? She was quite comfortable, had a matronly maid as househelp (and to offer unsolicited, but concerned advice on just about everything, including Mala’s ‘finding someone to settle down with’. The maid was very efficient, neat and punctual and, except for chattering all the time, quite dependable. Besides, Mala liked the chatter (even if she ignored most of it) as it filled the small but well laid out flat with some life. Mala voluntarily raised her wages every six months besides giving her now and then, gifts useful to her as well as to her maid’s only daughter. She also took care of her daughter’s school expenses to a reasonable degree.
Mala set the coffee going, rushed through her bath and made herself a bowl of flakes deciding not to add the dry fruits today. She had a quick breakfast while calling her mom and reassuring her that all was well, and simultaneously stalling her daily query about her marrying someone soon.
Mala saw her maid off, picked up her laptop, car and office keys and checked herself in the full-length mirror of her wardrobe. She locked her flat behind her and descended the stairs to the basement car park. Driving out of the apartment complex, she slowly merged into the river of traffic that was noisily building up. Even at that early hour she had to fight her way through the maze of vehicles, barely managing to reach her office before 9 am. She liked to reach early to let the strain of driving dissipate before settling down to work (hoping also that this may induce her assistants to be more punctual).
She logged into her desktop, running through the messages, filtering those that called for her immediate attention and briefing her secretary on the replies or follow up. She saw the memo reminding her of the meeting at 10 am with the company’s CEO Ram Kapoor on top of the file containing the relevant papers. Her two assistants, Rahul, and Som popped in and took their seats opposite her to take instructions, if any, and plan the day. Rahul reported the progress to date on the audit that his team was conducting at Investicom Ltd, adding that he sensed some reserve from the company’s senior managers to part with particular documents on some heavy loans borrowed and the related security offered. He suspected a possible collusion between the bank and the company on the genuineness of the securities. He also felt that the loans may have been diverted to destinations other than those mentioned in the loan application to the bank. Mala instructed Rahul to demand the details to be furnished to the audit team within 3 days by a separate letter specifically marked to the Director and copied to her. Rahul nodded and left.
Mala asked Som, also a CA, on the progress of the hearing with the Dy Commissioner of Income Tax (Dy CIT ) in the case of Venturo & Co. Ltd. Som said that the Dy CIT (working under the direct supervision of the Jt Commissioner, was probing the inflows of funds from various sources deeper than he had expected and he was pressing the Venturo to give him all the particulars. Mala told him to carry on and report in a week. Som left.
Mala then picked up the file marked for discussion with the CEO and, after confirming that he would see her, entered his room. Inviting her to take a seat, Ram Kapoor who was on the phone wound up his talk and turned to her. They discussed the matter pertaining to the file for some time and Mala rose to leave for her own office.
As she reached the door, Ram casually asked her how the Audit of Investicom Ltd was progressing. Mala was surprised that he should be even aware of the routine Annual Audit of a regular client, let alone show an interest in it. She, however, gave a cheerful non-committal reply and sailed out of the room.
She was busy all day with other matters, meetings with clients and following up a new client who wanted her company to represent him without any bitterness from his earlier auditors. When she was about to wind up for the day she received a phone call. It was Ram Kapoor wondering if she would join him for a cup of coffee on her way home. She had little time to speculate and said yes.
Mala drove to the Cafe Coffee Day (‘a lot can happen over coffee’) outlet that he had mentioned and joined him at the table he had already occupied. They chatted on this and that for some time, leaving Mala wondering why this was happening at all, when Ram suddenly asked her if there was any problem with the Income Tax hearing on the Venturo & Co. Ltd. Taken aback but smartly recovering, she answered that everything was under control. The CEO raised an eyebrow but did not pursue the matter. They finished their chat and on their way to the car park, Ram told her to keep him ‘in the loop’ on any developments in the case. Wishing him good night but completely puzzled about his unusual ‘request’, she got into her car and drove to her flat.
She had a disturbed sleep as she lay awake trying to decipher Ram’s extraordinary interest and curiosity in the Income Tax hearing of a client that was routine, coming on top of his interest also in the Investicom Ltd audit.
Next Monday, when she arrived at her office she found Som waiting for her. He came straight to the point and said that the Dy CIT was readying summons to be issued to the Directors of Venturo for producing details of the inflows with absolute proof for the sources. She instructed Som to continue to cooperate with the tax authorities and get Venturo to comply. After Som left she walked into Ram’s room and reported that Venturo appeared to have problems with the Dy CIT in establishing sources of the huge funds received in view of his decision to summon the directors of the company for examination. She further suggested that in her view, these sources seemed ‘dubious’ and that Venturo may ultimately face serious consequences. Ram said, “Theek hai. Aage main dekh loonga. Aap Som ko mere paas bhejiye.” (It’s alright. I will handle this. Please send Som to me.)
Mala returned to her office but could not concentrate on any work. Was she taken ‘off’ the case? Was it her suggestion that displeased Ram? Why should Ram Kapoor take charge of a routine case? She was convinced that she had been gently nudged out of any future action in the case. That annoyed her but she decided to ignore it and proceed as if nothing had happened.
A couple of weeks later, one evening as she left the office and turned the corner she found Som standing on the roadside waving to her. She stopped and with an awkward apology, Som got into the car, signalling her to start the car and keep driving.
After a few minutes, Som said, “Ma’am. I have something to say that I am deeply troubled about.”
Mala was silent so Som proceeded.
“Venturo & Co. Ltd is in deep trouble. They have been dodging the summons claiming that the Directors are abroad or on inspection tours and business meetings in the South. The Dy CIT is not amused and has threatened to take very serious action if they do not present themselves at the next date with proper evidence. I really believe that the Officer is convinced that the sources for the funds are bogus or fictitious and will not only pass an assessment order with substantial additions but will also launch criminal proceedings. I reported all this to Shri Ram Kapoorji but he told me to keep the Officer engaged with examination of other matters of the case and stall the summons issue. I am worried that by representing the company at the hearings and filing all details, I may also be dragged into these shenanigans and could be penalized along with the company. I need your advice and help.”
Mala was stunned at hearing all this but pretended to be cool. She advised him to be patient and careful while filing papers, not signing any paper himself on behalf of the company but to get it signed by an authorized signatory of the company. She dropped him off midway to her home but Som’s report haunted her. She finally decided that with Ram edging her out completely from the case, there wasn’t much she could do, not even talk to Ram about it, as that would expose Som. She chose discretion over valour and kept her counsel, not responding to Som’s distress signal. When she did not hear from Som again, she chose to forget the whole episode.
A few weeks later, Rahul was in her room discussing the Annual Audit of Investicom Ltd. After briefing her on the progress of the Audit and reporting that he may end it soon, he hesitated a bit and seemed on the verge of saying something.
Mala asked, “Is there anything else that you want to report?”
Rahul was about to say ‘yes’ but said there was nothing more and left the room. Mala was mystified by his behaviour but chose not to press him as she was already inundated with lots of other work. It may only be the result of some pressure of work on Rahul, she thought.
The next evening, as she entered her apartment building, she saw Rahul waiting for her. As this had never happened before, she was surprised and, in some anxiety, asked him why he was there. Rahul hesitated and then requested her to see him in her flat as he wanted to reveal some confidential matters concerning the Audit of Investicom Ltd.
Mala was at once alert and demanded to know why it could not be done in her office.
Rahul said that what he wanted to say was a very serious and ‘explosive’ matter and absolutely dangerous to talk about in the office.
Mala agreed to see and listen to him, although with some misgivings. They went up to her flat and she made some tea for both of them. She could easily see that Rahul was very nervous and looked extremely worried. When they were comfortably seated she asked him what it was all about.
Rahul began, “Ma’am. You know that Investicom had raised huge loans on some land documents pledged with the bank as security. The deeper I went into these land documents, the more it appeared that they were not genuine and the delay in producing all related papers also strengthened those suspicions. Yesterday, as I was leaving their premises after the day’s work, an employee of the company who had been assisting me during the Audit, but whose services had suddenly been terminated for reasons not known, approached me and asked me for a lift. I welcomed him and we left. On the way, he began talking and mentioned the loans that we had been looking into. He then revealed that not only were the documents furnished to the bank fictitious but the loans obtained had also been channeled through several shell companies to their final destination — the Venturo & Co. Ltd and their Directors, who had siphoned off those funds to their own investments. He said he had documentary proof of all this and was ready to hand over that proof to me. I was shocked and did not know how to react. He then dropped the biggest bombshell on me. He told me that Ram Kapoor’s wife and sister are Directors in some of the shell companies that were used to launder the bank loans. Then, he suggested that he was willing to hand over all the documentary proof to you but not to me as I was in the forefront of the Audit going on and both of us had been together for days with the accounts and papers of the company. Please advise me what to do now.”
Mala was now in a great dilemma. If, after listening to all this, she allowed it to go ahead without doing anything about it, she would be a coward who was afraid to act. If she shrugged this away, she would never be able to live with herself, especially after she had been abruptly told to desist from handling the case by Ram Kapoor, giving rise to her own apprehensions that there were some serious issues with Venturo. On the other hand, if she actually received proof against Investicom and acted on it, she may be a traitor to the company that employed her because, with Ram Kapoor and his family deeply involved, her own company would also be singed in the subsequent fire. She told Rahul that she will sleep on the matter and give him her decision the next day. She also warned him of the very grave danger to which both of them were now exposed if any of this was known to Ram.
Mala thought deep and long on all that she had learnt from both Rahul and Som and putting all that together, she clearly saw that the two companies closely associated with Ram Kapoor and the several shell companies between, were a spider web of financial irregularities in which the bank’s officers had also connived and were accomplices, to the great detriment of public money.
Mala sent for Rahul and told him to ask his friend to furnish the evidence to her. She gave a fictitious name and an anonymous collecting address to Rahul to give to his friend, asking him to wait for two weeks before dispatching the package.
Mala walked into Ram’s room the next day and told him that she was leaving the company as she needed to attend to her mother in her failing health and had found a job in the city where her mother lived. She told Ram that even if it was not as remunerative, she had to accept that as her mother refused to leave their ancestral home, where she was living alone with only a servant. Ram Kapoor did not demur and agreed to let her go. He felt that as Mala was familiar with affairs of both companies, it was just as well that she left when the issue of summons to Directors of Venturo was coming to a boil.
In due course, Mala received the papers from Rahul’s contact and verified them to the extent possible to ensure that they were genuine and implicated the persons concerned, namely Ram Kapoor, his family, some Directors of both companies as well as some officers of the bank. She then secretly contacted the Joint Commissioner of Income Tax (JCIT) concerned with overseeing the proceedings before the Dy. CIT and, with his careful planning to keep Mala’s name and role totally confidential, managed to pass on the papers to him.
On scrutiny of the papers, the gravity and ramifications of the issues involved, the JCIT sought a meeting with his superiors. It was decided that the Enforcement Directorate should also be involved as fraudulent deals with intention of money laundering through shell companies with the collusion of officers of a public sector bank, was the motive behind all this.
Extensive raids by the Income Tax dept and the ED were carried out. The role played by Ram Kapoor and his family was exposed and he had to resign from the company in disgrace. Bank officials who were accomplices in this massive fraud were hauled up. Huge undisclosed incomes and assets were discovered and suitably taxed.
Mala chose to discontinue working for a salary in a corporate atmosphere and opened her own consultancy in Income Tax and Audit in her mother’s town, with a classmate of hers as her partner. It was a small beginning but she was satisfied with what she did following her clear conscience. She was also happy, except when her mother chided her about being single. Her mother too was very pleased that Mala would now stay with her.
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