August 30, 2011

life in financial markets: how companies manipulate government to stop market regulators from investigating them

Anna Hazare's close aides, last week, were comfortable in dealing with a representative of the government who happens to be pressurising the stock market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India, to go easy in ongoing investigations in the cases of certain large influential companies and corporate groups. None other than India's finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, as per this newsreport published in today's Indian Express newspaper, is influencing Sebi to "manage" ongoing investigation cases against certain influential corporate gorups.

Here is the newsreport:

Ex-SEBI member to PM: ID leaked, family at grave risk

P. Vaidyanathan Iyer

A whole-time board member of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), the stock market regulator, has complained to the government that he and his family are at “grave” risk after his letter to the Prime Minister complaining against Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the minister’s advisor Omita Paul, and his chairman U K Sinha, was sent to the finance ministry — and his identity leaked.

In that first letter sent on June 1, K M Abraham, a 1982 IAS Kerala-cadre officer — his term in SEBI ended on July 20 — alleged that Mukherjee and Paul put pressure on Sinha to “manage” some high-profile corporate cases and, in the process, undermined the regulator’s integrity.

Abraham’s letter referred to several enforcement cases against groups including Sahara, Reliance Industries Ltd and ADAG companies, Bank of Rajasthan and MCX-SX, a new stock exchange that currently offers trading facilities in currency derivatives.

“While reviewing these cases in his three months as Chairman SEBI, Shri U K Sinha has directly or indirectly, referred to how these cases are sensitive and are engaging the attention of the Union Minister for Finance or Smt Omita Paul, Advisor to the Finance Minister,” Abraham alleged.

Sinha had replaced C B Bhave as SEBI chairman on February 18 this year.

A fortnight after receiving Abraham’s letter, the PMO sent a copy to Economic Affairs Secretary in the finance ministry, R Gopalan, for his comments. Expressing anguish at this, Abraham wrote again to the Prime Minister on June 24.

“I couldn’t have gone to the Finance Minister who (as U K Sinha disclosed) had conveyed his interest in a few cases in SEBI to the Chairman personally.

Giving a copy of my letter that bears specific references to corporate houses, to the Finance Ministry, under the present circumstances can have the unintended consequence of exposing our lives and safety to grave risks,” he said.

Sinha did not respond to an email sent by The Indian Express almost 10 days ago.

When contacted, Paul said: “I do not know Abraham. I have never spoken to him. The Finance Ministry has sent its response on the issue to the PMO, the Department of Personnel and Training and the Central Vigilance Commissioner.”

Paul referred the newspaper to a Finance Ministry official, who said that Abraham was “perhaps raising these issues” because he was trying to deflect allegations against him.

These relate to his purchase of a flat in Mumbai built by Kohinoor Planet Construction Ltd. The flat is in the same complex where the National Stock Exchange, an entity regulated by SEBI, bought commercial space, raising questions of conflict of interest.

Further, the official said, Abraham may have been cut up with the Ministry for not extending his tenure by another two years and with the new SEBI chairman for not clearing a file relating to his appointment as Director in the National Institute of Securities Market. He was the only candidate shortlisted by a search committee set up during Bhave’s tenure.

The institute is a public trust set up by SEBI to add market quality through educational initiatives.

Upon receiving Abraham’s letter from the PMO, Gopalan wrote to Sinha on June 21 seeking his comments. After two reminders from the ministry on June 29 and July 5, Sinha replied that Abraham’s allegations are “completely baseless, motivated and are an attempt to tarnish the image of the government; apart from being a malicious attack on me as Chairman of Sebi”.

In his July 8 letter, Sinha also said Abraham was “under severe stress and tension” for the last one month or so.

“He appears to be suffering from an insecurity complex which has got aggravated after some media articles regarding CBDT probing certain properties purchased by him and by (one) Mr M S Sahoo, other whole-time member,” Sinha wrote to the ministry. He, however, said in the letter that Sebi — after verification of facts on Abraham’s purchase of the flat — sent reports on February 11, March 14, May 9, May 25 and July 4 that “the allegations are not true”.

Sinha added: “His (Abraham’s) behaviour is being erratic and he seems to be under some delusion about threat to his family.”

When contacted, Abraham said: “I had applied for a Provident Fund loan from the government for purchasing the flat.” Further, he said, there are thousands of entities regulated by SEBI and each of them may have commercial space in Mumbai. “Does that mean, I cannot buy a flat in any complex where an entity regulated by SEBI has bought space?”

In his June 1 letter to the Prime Minister, Abraham had said: “Sinha mentioned that ‘they are not interested in too many cases in SEBI’, and if he is able to ‘manage’ these few cases, then it becomes ‘easy’ for him.” On a few occasions, he wrote, the SEBI Chairman mentioned that, “the ‘Big Man’ (which he then clarifies is the Union Finance Minister) is interested, and that he has personally told him so”.

Several times, he wrote, “the Chairman has aired his sad frustration that the ‘Lady’ (referring to Smt Omita Paul, Advisor to the Union Finance Minister) is controlling everything — and all such things are being done at her instance... I have heard him mention that it is so difficult to interact with the Finance Ministry.”

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