Lest bureaucrats be judged! | Daily News

Lest bureaucrats be judged!

The judgment delivered by the Colombo High Court last week, finding former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) Anusha Pelpita guilty of criminal misappropriation of public funds, sent a powerful message to public servants throughout the country- and will not be without a political fallout.

Colombo High Court Judge Gihan Kulatunga found Weeratunga and Pelpita guilty of all charges against them. They were accused of diverting TRC funds to fund the distribution of sil redi to voters in the run up to the 2015 presidential election campaign. They were each sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment for all the charges with a fine of two million rupees. They were also ordered to pay the 50 million rupees each to the TRC.

After the verdict, Weeratunga and Pelpita were led away to the Welikada prison. When the verdict was delivered at the High Court last Thursday, politicians- who usually throng court premises when one of their colleagues is in the dock- were conspicuous by their absence. On Monday, Weeratunga and Pelpita lodged an appeal against the verdict.

This is the first high profile corruption case to reach a conclusion since this government took office and would go towards answering its critics who claimed that none of the culprits who engaged in corruption during the previous regime was being punished. However, detractors would claim that neither Weeratunga nor Pelpita were politicians and were merely carrying out orders on behalf of their political masters.

Distribution of sil redi

In his judgment, the High Court Judge observed that on December 5, 2014, just a month prior to the presidential election, a sum of Rs.600 million had been remitted to a bank account maintained by the former Secretary to the President through the intervention of Pelpita, without approval from the board of directors of the TRC.

In a lengthy judgment, High Court Judge Kulatunga noted that evidence given by a secretary attached to the TRC had proved that the directors’ approval was not obtained for this transaction. It was revealed that this transaction had been done through a method called ‘circulation’ in which no written approval was given to remit the funds, the High Court Judge observed.

While stating that he cannot agree with the contention of the accused that the sil redi distribution programme was a long term process, the High Court Judge maintained that this had been initiated with the intention of gaining undue advantage to a particular candidate in an urgent manner.

The defence had argued that the distribution of sil redi comes under the expenditure of the President. The defence was of the view that due to insufficient funds at the President’s disposal, financial assistance from the TRC was sought. However, the High Court held that the funds should have been sought through a supplementary estimate without following an irregular and illegal process.

Former Election Commissioner and now Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya and the former President’s Coordinating Secretary of Religious Affairs, Venerable Vatinapaha Somananda Thera were among those who gave evidence at the trial.

Weeratunga, who was Secretary to then President Mahinda Rajapaksa when the offence was committed, has evoked much sympathy. Now 67 years of age, he was a distinguished administrative officer who has held many responsible positions in government and served as secretary to Rajapaksa when the latter was Prime Minister. When Rajapaksa was elevated to the office of President, Weeratunga was appointed Secretary to the President. It must be noted that the High Court agreed that neither Weeratunga nor Pelpita appeared to have misappropriated funds for their personal use.

However, Weeratunga, being an experienced public servant, would have been aware of the errors of omission and commission committed at the highest levels of government in the Rajapaksa regime. By carrying out instructions he may have simply been doing his job but he was also following orders that were highly irregular and thereby incriminating himself. He could have chosen not to do so and resigned with his honour and dignity intact, it has been argued.

This debate- about the Sri Lankan public servant at the mercy of his or her political master- will no doubt linger on in the coming weeks but this verdict will have its political consequences. Public servants are now likely to request written instructions from politicians when questionable orders are made- and that is not a negative consequence because it then serves as a system of checks and balances both for officials and politicians.

The reaction of the two major political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to the verdict has been muted. None of their stalwarts have made public statements for or against it. Meanwhile, the Joint Opposition (JO) has predictably registered its protest while the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has categorically commended the verdict.

Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked for his reactions to the verdict by eager media men. Usually a master at providing ‘voice cuts’, Rajapaksa found himself in all kinds of difficulties trying to defend himself. In the end, he stated that Weeratunga and Pelpita have been convicted because they were trying to foster Buddhism, a reference to the distribution of sil redi. He also took a dig at President Maithripala Sirisena, saying that his wife too could be charged because she was seen distributing sil redi with the President a few days ago.

Rajapaksa’s defence appeared to have been worse than the offence. The JVP’s Vijitha Herath responded in style, asking whether stealing funds from the public was within the tenets of Buddhism. Herath also noted that Weeratunga’s wife, Indrani Sugathdasa, who served once chaired the Securities and Exchange Commission, had the courage to resign from her post when undue influences were being exerted on her- but that her husband lacked such integrity.

The JVP also queried the massive amount of 600 million rupees that is supposed to have been spent on sil redi, arguing that it was sufficient to provide material for each and every family in the country and inquired whether the average family received this ‘gift’.

Asked again at a public event as to why he did not come forward and accept responsibility for the transaction instead of allowing his secretary to be sent to prison, Rajapaksa said that if it was a mistake, he would have admitted it but maintained that it was not a mistake.

“I have given eight orders in March, before the presidential election was held, based on requests received by the people. The decision to hand over sil redi was only one among these eight decisions and funds for these programmes were allocated right away. This was not done to secure an advantage at the election as some claim,” Rajapaksa argued, but appeared to lose his cool with the reporter posing questions, saying he was being ‘provoked’- a rare occurrence for the usually media savvy Rajapaksa.

The verdict against Weeratunga and Pelpita, while heralding a new benchmark for politicians and public servants, comes at a time when a group within the SLFP is trying to bring about a rapprochement between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions of the party. This is with a view of contesting the upcoming Local Government and Provincial Council elections as one entity.

However the Rajapaksa faction, the JO, will see the verdict as a further insult to their cause and this will not help in mending relations between the two camps. It will also strengthen the resolve of those within the JO who are vehemently arguing that they should go it alone.

The latest victim of the tension between the two groups was Deputy Minister of Tourism Promotion and Christian Affairs, Arundika Fernando. Fernando was removed from his post by President Maithripala Sirisena on Tuesday. It will be recalled that Fernando had a very public spat with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga at the last meeting of the SLFP’s Central Committee, when he argued for the reunification of the two factions of the SLFP.

With the Elections Commission now announcing that Local Government elections will be held in January 2018, the government is now in a race against time to try and hold polls to the provincial council on a single date. To do so, it would have to ensure the passage of the 20th Amendment by October 2, 2017. It is attempting to do so, by incorporating the necessary changes to the proposed legislation but whether they will succeed is left to be seen. That is what will be played out in the political arena in the coming weeks. 



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