Ex-Agriculture Ministry Secretary tells PCoI that he was coerced into signing controversial lease agreement
Posted on September 23rd, 2019

By Rathindra Kuruwita Courtesy The Island

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Former Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture B. Wijeratne told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing corruption of the current administration that former minister of agriculture, Duminda Dissanayake had applied pressure on him to sign the lease agreement between the Agriculture Ministry and D.P. Jayasinghe Company to relocate the Ministry there.

Wijeratne who appeared before the PCoI also said that the Ministry had no desire to shift from the building. The decision to relocate the ministry, in 2016, was due to continuous pressure from the Parliament.

On September 21, 2015, Wickremesinghe presented a Cabinet paper stating that the Ministry of Agriculture should explore the possibility of relocating to the SP (Suhurupaya) Building. “This didn’t materialise,” Wijeratne said.

Although the Prime Minister then appointed a committee headed by Secretary to the PM Saman Ekanayake, Wijeratne said that he was never informed of that committee. The Committee found three privately owned buildings where the Ministry could relocate until the third stage of Sethsiripaya was completed.

“Later Ekanayake called me and said they found the D.P. Jayasinghe building. I visited the building with the Minister of Agriculture,” he said.

Wijeratne said that there were a number of issues with the building and that they realised that a lot of money would have to be spent on the building to make it suitable for a ministry.

When the witness was questioned as to why he didn’t send the final version of the agreement to the Attorney General, Wijeratne said that AG had made five observations and as per his understanding once those instructions were fulfilled; there was no need to send the agreement to the AG again.

“In previous letters from the AG’s Department always explicitly said to refer back to them. That wasn’t there in this letter. Also our legal officer had made a note saying that the AG’s department officials had informed her that there was no need to send the agreement back again. “

Last week former minister Dissanayake told the Presidential Commission Wijeratne verbally informed him that the Attorney General (AG) had granted approval for the lease agreement between the Ministry and D.P. Jayasinghe Company.

“I was very cautious. I always used the word clearance not approval.”

Chairman of the PCoI, retired Supreme Court judge, Upali Abeyratne said that it was Wijeratne’s responsibility to have sent the final draft of the agreement before signing it.

“We have detected a number of issues with the agreement and do you think that these could have been ironed out if you had sent the agreement to the AG?” Abeyratne asked.

“Yes, that’s possible,” the witness said.

Earlier this month Dissanayake told the PCoI that it was not fair for the Presidential Commission to question him on the controversial lease agreement signed between the Agriculture Ministry and D.P. Jayasinghe Company as all decisions on the transaction had been taken by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

However Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said last Monday (16) that sending the agreement to the Attorney General’s Department for approval was the responsibility of former Minister of Agriculture Duminda Dissanayake and that responsibility for Dissanayake’s action finally lay with the President.

It was also revealed in July that there was no termination clause in the lease agreement signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and D.P. Jayasinghe Company in 2016 on renting a building for the Ministry. The total value of the agreement was over Rs. 1.3 billion. The Ministry of Agriculture was to pay Rs. 21 million plus VAT and Nation Building Tax a month in the period between April 08, 2016 and April 07, 2019. From April 08.2019 to April 07, 2021 the Ministry was to pay Rs. 24.1 million plus VAT and Nation Building Tax a month. When the agreement was executed the Ministry paid Rs. 504 million to the lessor. This amount of funds was to be used during the last two years of the lease period to reduce Rs. 21 million from the monthly lease of Rs. 24.1 million.

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