Financial criminals must pay back with interest
Posted on August 18th, 2017

Courtesy The Sunday Times

The last few weeks have been a guessing game of whether Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake would throw in the towel or face the ignominy of being removed from office in the fallout from his alleged complicity with those in the epicentre of the storm that kicked up so much dust from the massive Central Bank bond scams of 2015 and 2016.

Ravi Karunanayake at the Bond CommissionUltimately, Mr. Karunanayake took the correct decision to step down from his post after some deliberation, and some coaxing. By the end of last week, it appeared that he had to be dragged out of his ministry kicking and screaming, to be drawn and quartered and thrown to ravenous wolves. He argued, and somewhat justifiably why he had to be the fall guy – the sacrificial lamb for doing his duty by the party. If Ministers must step down until corruption charges against them are cleared then more than half the Cabinet must do so right away. The biggest irony is that those in the Opposition calling for Mr. Karunanayake’s blood have had their own pockets lined with filthy lucre while they were in office. Today, the reputation of Ministers — recent, past and present — is mud.

The silver lining in this saga of corruption in high-level Government, especially with the Central Bank bond scam as the focus, is that there were upright officials of the Central Bank who reacted against a brazen act – not once, but twice, of diddling the public purse by the senior-most persona in the bank and his immediate family. Whistleblowers within the Bank gave the stories to the media while the then Governor tried desperately to stop the leaks by checking on mobile phone calls and then effecting mass transfers of staff. There is no doubt that this Government deserves credit for further pressing on with the investigation into what was initially a botched attempt at covering up a great bank robbery. Whether that credit must go for altruistic reasons or partisan political expediency is immaterial because public wrath against both parties in the coalition Government had already reached boiling point and spilling over.

Yes, such an investigation under the previous Government would be unthinkable. The only somewhat recent case of a Minister being asked to step down on allegations of corruption was almost 35 years ago when then Agriculture Minister E.L. Senanayake was removed together with Ministry Secretary Ranjan Wijeratne by President J.R. Jayewardene over a fertilizer tender. Both Mr. Senanayake and Mr. Wijeratne held high office thereafter, though. A young MP for Hewaheta, Anura Daniel was also asked to step down over his connections with a smuggler. Since then only Tilak Marapana has stepped down voluntarily when his name was dragged into a controversy where he was the lawyer to a client who was being investigated by his ministry.

One of the key factors in the ability of the Central Bank officials to react to what was happening inside their establishment was the independence they enjoy as public officials. This is what is needed in the entire public service that has been totally politicised over the years. The fact that they are public servants and not government servants should be the applicable nomenclature to denote the difference.

Today, the RTI (Right to Information) Law is in force again thanks to this Government. There is a positive side to the continuing investigation on the bond scams and that is that there was also a public outcry which a section of the Government tried to muffle. The investigations will necessarily have to go beyond the Bond Commission, to a logical conclusion until Yahapalanaya can claim total victory so that perpetrators of financial crimes against the people are not allowed to take the people for suckers. They must face the consequences of their actions and pay back their ill-gotten gains, with interest.

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