Court dismisses all charges in 2002-03 2G case
In a major embarrassment to the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Congress party and former telecom minister Kapil Sibal, the special CBI court conducting the trial in the 2G spectrum case on Thursday dismissed all allegations relating to irregularities in spectrum allocation during 2002-03 to Bharti Airtel and Vodafone India (then divided into two companies, Sterling Cellular and Hutchsion Max) beyond 6.2 MHz and pegging the loss to the exchequer at R846 crore.
The court not only discharged all the three accused — apart from the two companies, the then telecom secretary Shyamal Ghosh — but also directed the CBI director to conduct an inquiry against its “erring officials” as it termed the charge sheet “false and fabricated”, and filed for “extraneous reasons”. The ruling comes as a huge setback to the Congress and Sibal in particular because in the aftermath of the 2007-08 2G scam, the two had alleged the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government was involved in irregular spectrum allotment in 2002.
The party and Sibal had accordingly demanded an investigation in the matter. Subsequently, all spectrum allocation since 2001 was brought under the purview of investigation by the CBI.
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In his 235-page harshly worded order, which comes down heavily on the CBI, special judge OP Saini observed that the investigating agency tried to mislead the court and the charge sheet filed by it was full of “distorted facts”.
“I am reading out the last paragraph of the order. It’s a false and fabricated charge sheet and there is no incriminating evidence against any of the accused so they are discharged. The charge sheet is full of distorted facts and an attempt has been made to mislead the court,” the judge said. The “CBI director is directed to make an inquiry against erring officials”, the court said.
The development comes as a huge relief for Ghosh as well Bharti Airtel chairman and managing director Sunil Mittal, Essar Group vice-chairman Ravi Ruia and the then managing director of Hutch-Essar, Asim Ghosh. Though Mittal, Ruia and Asim Ghosh were not named in the charge sheet, Saini had initially summoned them as accused in the court as alter egos of the companies they represented. Though the three got relief on this count from the Supreme Court, the apex court had allowed Saini to summon them at any stage if he found any incriminating evidence against them.
The CBI had filed the charge sheet in 2012 — its fourth in the 2G spectrum case — alleging irregularities in spectrum allocation during 2002-03 to the two companies. However, no names of any officials or promoters of the respective companies were mentioned. The then telecom secretary Shyamal Ghosh had also been charged with allegedly conspiring with the companies and the then telecom minister Pramod Mahajan to grant the additional spectrum. Since Mahajan had died, the agency had not proposed any action against him.
The accused were charged under Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC and various provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act relating to misconduct by a public servant by accepting illegal gratification by abusing his official position.
Broadly, the CBI’s charge was that Bharti and Vodafone were the beneficiaries of the department of telecommunications’ move on January 31, 2002, to allocate additional spectrum beyond 6.2 MHz and subsequently from 8 MHz to 10 MHz. It had said that then telecom minister Mahajan and Ghosh showed undue haste in clearing the proposal, bypassing the Telecom Commission, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, member (finance) and the wireless adviser. Ghosh in conspiracy with Mahajan and the accused companies was alleged to have granted the additional spectrum with a spectrum usage charge of 1% of adjusted gross revenue instead of 2%.
The CBI had also said that while the technical committee of the DoT had recommended to allot additional spectrum beyond 6.2 MHz only after the operator reached a subscriber base of 9 lakh, DoT reduced it to 4 lakh for applying for additional spectrum and 5 lakh for actual allocation.
Explaining the quid pro quo, the CBI had said that Mahajan initiated a note on May 30, 2002, to create a post of USO fund administrator for Ghosh, who retired as telecom secretary on May 31. The note was sent to the PM and was approved on the same day. It was later approved by the Cabinet Committee on Appointments. Ghosh was subsequently appointed as USO fund administrator and remained in office for three years. However, after his retirement the Cabinet downgraded the post to the rank of additional secretary with the criterion that only a serving officer can be appointed to the office.
As is known, the CBI had expanded its probe into the 2G spectrum scam of 2008 centring around former telecom minister A Raja to include all spectrum allocations since 2001. This was done after Sibal took charge of the telecom ministry and said that spectrum allocation without auctions were done by the NDA government also. Subsequently, he constituted a one-man inquiry under retired justice Shivraj Patil, which pointed out a number of irregularities.