Above: Gauhati High Court
In directing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the Louis Berger bribery scam case from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Assam Police, the Gauhati High Court had also observed in early September that the CID was acting in a partisan manner.
This was a severe reprimand for the state police and its investigative arm, and their very credibility is now in question. The CBI has already registered an FIR. Charged in the FIR were unnamed officials of the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority as well as officials of the Assam government. This is apart from officials of the US firm. Charges are of criminal conspiracy and corruption.
The scam pertains to the US firm Louis Berger bribing officials to secure three water supply projects in Goa and Guwahati. Louis Berger, a multinational, is not new to bribes and has been hauled up by US law enforcing agencies. In India this was their first scam.
The High Court was reacting to a PIL filed by social activist Bhaben Handique.
The court observed: “It is stated by the petitioners that a penalty of 1.71 crore US dollars was imposed on the company (in the US).” The division bench directed: “The case diary shall be submitted to by the CID in a sealed cover to the custody of the Registrar General of the Gauhati High Court who shall hand it over the same, after completing necessary formalities, to the CBI.”
Now the Assam government and police have been asked to cooperate with the CBI enquiry. The bench said: “It is crystal clear that the investigating agency has not investigated the case in the right earnest and has been conducting the same in a partisan manner.”
The scam, in fact, had come to light after Louis Berger had pleaded guilty before a New Jersey court of paying bribes to obtain contracts as consultants of water supply projects in Goa and Guwahati. Activist Handique had filed his complaint in 2015, citing this.
The political angle to this cannot be overlooked. The scam happened in the Congress dispensation in Assam, headed by chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Himanta Biswa Sarma was the Guwahati Development Department minister. When BJP won, Sarma switched allegiance and is now a minister.
As for the US firm Louis Berger (formerly Berger Group Holdings), an engineering to economic development firm based in Morristown, New Jersey, it had to settle fraud charges for contracts in Afghanistan. It has also admitted to criminal responsibility to US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations in a settlement with the US Department of Justice for bribery of governments in Asia (this includes India). It has also been banned by the World Bank for corrupt practices.
The proven dubious track record of the company is of $3.9 million bribes paid in India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Kuwait between 1998 and 2010. These were in the form of kickbacks. The company settled with the US Department of Justice in July 2015 by admitting criminal responsibility and paying a $17.1 million penalty.
—India Legal Bureau