The world of Abhishek Verma
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A prime accused in the 2006 Navy war room leak case—in which sensitive naval documents were leaked by a network of serving and retired defence officers—Verma is now in jail for allegedly trying to bribe government officials to get a Switzerland-based defence firm off the defence ministry's blacklist. After spending two years in Tihar jail in the war room case, Verma had been out on bail since 2008. In just these last four years, say investigators, Verma had re-established his contacts, hired a network of well-connected retired officers and managed to ink lucrative agreements with leading global defence manufacturers, even allegedly promising one that its name could be struck off a government blacklist in exchange for half-a- million dollars.
Who is Abhishek Verma? A conman who liked to flaunt his connections or someone with a network so well-oiled that he walked straight out of jail into the murky world of defence deals? It could well be the latter, say investigators as they pore over piles of documents sent by his former New York-based business associate C Edmonds Allen, who fell out with him in January this year.
While most of the documents relate to agreements, financial transactions and correspondence between defence companies and Verma, investigators have evidence to suggest that some highly classified defence ministry files have made their way to Verma's company Ganton. These point to a leak at a very senior level in the government, possibly the worst such leak from South Block in the past few decades. The secret files relate to the Air Force's acquisition plans for 2009-10 and 2011-12, minutes of a meeting of a Defence Acquisition Council in 2011 that discussed plans to buy new submarines and letters from the Cabinet Secretariat to Elbit Systems of Israel on specifications for an electronic surveillance aircraft for RAW.
As the CBI goes through the 'evidence' it has on its hands—hundreds of emails, photographs and money transfer records provided by Allen—the agency has a compelling case to book Verma and his Romanian wife, Anca Neacsu, for allegedly lobbying for Swiss defence firm Rheinmetall AD. Neacsu had met Minister of State for Defence M M Pallam Raju in December as a representative of global arms manufacturer Sig Sauer after she had received half-a-million dollars from Rheinmetall AD, which was on the defence ministry's blacklist.
All this points to the comeback Verma made in the defence consultancy business—a cut throat, high-risk but high-yield sector—after his jail stint. The documents with the CBI also refer to agreements Verma had with US-based aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft and even with non-defence firms like Chinese telecom company ZTE China.
While the CBI is still trying to verify the authenticity of the documents it has received, the emails and exchanges that are being investigated suggest that Verma's company Ganton had hired former officers of the Indian armed forces and consultants from across the world. His wife Neacsu (who is now under arrest with Verma) and an Israeli national named Gili Golan (who has since left India and is believed to be in Israel) were among his consultants. Some of the retired defence officers on Verma's payrolls include those who have been indicted in the past for impropriety.
Retired Wing Commander SL Surve, who was arrested by the CBI in the war room leaks case and is now on bail, also worked for him. These officers allegedly used their old boys' network in the services and the defence ministry to get information on ongoing projects and to fix appointments and meetings for visiting 'dignitaries'.
For example, one of the letters under investigation talks of a party planned on the 60th birthday of a retired Wing Commander, Koka Rao, who was an employee of Ganton. The guest list included at least seven serving three-star-level officers—including those from the army in charge of procuring equipment. The brief in the email, allegedly sent by Surve on November 22, 2011, directs all Ganton employees to attend the party that had been organised for 'professional reasons'. The mail also had a list of officers who the employees were expected to "work on". The Sunday Express confirmed that several top serving officers—including at least two Lt Generals—went to the party. Some, however, including a serving Air Force officer who was then an AOC-in-C, declined.
The documents allege that some serving defence officials also met with Ganton employees and promised them help in managing procurement projects. One of the emails dated June 3, 2011, allegedly sent by Verma, has details of an officer described as a serving Colonel who had allegedly promised to fix tenders and procurement files of small arms deals that were being processed by the Army Headquarters. The email also had a photograph of the alleged fixer, apparently taken from a hidden camera.
Among the documents being scanned by investigators are several references to Verma's 'contacts'—ministers, government officials and military leaders. One of the 'itinerary' documents being probed, for example, boasts of an appointment that had been fixed for a senior Sig Sauer official with a young member of the 'Gandhi family'.
Verma, whose late father Srikant Verma was a senior Congress leader, has often boasted of his association with the Congress party. On his website, Verma claims to have been the editor-publisher of India Worldwide, "a US-based monthly magazine that was co-published by the Indian National Congress's overseas chairman Kamal Dandona".
"When P V Narasimha Rao succeeded Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, Verma rode the crest of business opportunities that arose largely out of the Indian Government's vast liberalisation measures, helping his fledgling company ESAM India Limited to surge ahead. ESAM launched a cargo airline, and soon after, acquired several cargo aircraft from the erstwhile Soviet Union to operate on the Indo-Russian and Indo-Gulf sectors," claims Verma's website.
The profile on his website claims Verma graduated from Hindu College in New Delhi and in 1989 from Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
THE MAN AND HIS DEEDS
Verma was arrested in 2006 in the Navy war room leak case. Investigators say Verma, in connivance with a clutch of Navy officials, played a key role in circulating sensitive war room data. Inside Tihar, Verma allegedly forged close ties with high-profile prisoners such as Dawood aide Romesh Sharma and Ashutosh Verma, the former deputy director of Income Tax who was arrested by the CBI in 2008. Verma's life inside Tihar made news as he roamed freely and had free access to his mobile phone. Several photographs sent by Allen show Verma talking on his mobile phone inside Tihar and lounging around with fellow inmates.
Investigators say it is difficult to get into the head of Verma, who owned two dozen companies that he ran with the help of his aides and international partners. In the course of the interrogation, the investigators learnt that Swiss defence company Rheinmetall Air Defence was not the only one to be duped by Verma; defence firms from China, Israel and France too were lured by Verma's grandeur.
After his bail in 2008, Verma moved into a farm house at Church Road in New Delhi's Vasant Kunj with Neacsu, an engineer by training. The two got married on June 3 this year. The CBI seized several documents, including e-mail exchanges, from Verma's and Neacsu's laptops but the duo describes them as 'fake' and 'forged'. A forensic analysis is being conducted to establish the truth.
For someone who, according to the CBI, did not own a single bank account in India, Verma paid a monthly rent of Rs 5.50 lakh for the Vasant Kunj farmhouse. CBI officials say Verma had been living on money that he got through hawala or personal transfers to someone else's account. However, the agency has so far not been able to stop or identify these sources.
Verma's first foray into the world of quick bucks and tax havens started in 1986, when he was 16. Verma and his father Srikant Verma had opened a joint bank account in March 1986 at the Bank of India in New York. Verma Jr got into trouble with the US bank account in 1991-92 when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) charged him for alleged Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) violations. It was alleged that between 1991 and 1992, Verma used this account to purchase and sell foreign exchange to persons other than authorised dealers.
During the trial in this case, Verma had claimed that the money in the account had been donated by the Government of Madhya Pradesh for the treatment of his father who was suffering from cancer. For long, Verma projected himself as a Non-Resident Indian, but the investigating agencies demolished this argument.
Verma also forged closed ties with Atlas Group of Companies, a global defence contractor and telecom powerhouse with revenues exceeding $1.5 billion. He became the chairman of Atlas Defence Systems Ltd and Atlas Interactive India Private Limited and group director of the Atlas Group of Companies.
Verma's personal and professional lives often crossed paths. He allegedly used his contacts in the CBI and the ED to implicate his first wife, Asmita Aggarwal, in a FERA case. Verma married Asmita on December 1, 1992. According to investigators, Verma reportedly made a deposit of Rs 10 crore in a Swiss bank account in Asmita's name. This money, according to officials sources, was from Verma's father's property. After the couple decided to part ways, Verma demanded the money back from his wife and filed a complaint with the ED and accused his estranged wife of FERA violations. To frame her, Verma allegedly sought the help of Ashok Agarwal, then deputy director at ED. The duo conspired to plant a forged message on the fax machine of Subhash Barjatiya, a prominent jeweller.
In December 1997, Verma sent a message from the fax machine installed at his mother's house suggesting a transfer of funds from the Swiss bank account. Verma and Agarwal had allegedly conspired to extract a confession from the jeweller that Asmita was his client in his business of moving funds illegally. However, their bluff was called when investigators realised that the fax had been sent on December 31, 1997, when banks in Europe would have been closed. Verma was arrested but he got away after turning approver in the case.
As CBI sleuths and other investigators work their way through a complex web of companies and subsidiaries set up by Verma in the past few years, one thing is clear: it will require an extraordinary amount of tenacity to get to the bottom of what is a well-connected network. Many of Verma's 'associates' named by Allen have gone underground and his website has since shut.
CASES UNDER PROBE
Over the last four years, Verma's companies inked agreements with various global arms manufacturers to assist them on Indian contracts. Some of the alleged deals:
Rheinmetall Air Defence (RAD)
The company, which had been blacklisted by the ministry in the Ordnance Factory Board bribery scam, allegedly paid Ganton $530,000 to get its name off the banned list. The money was paid to Ganton USA on January 31, 2011.
Ganton had an arrangement with Greece-based Hellenic, RAD's main rival, over an army tender. Ganton organised a four-day visit for Hellenic executives in June 2011 that included meetings with senior defence PSU officials.
The US aircraft manufacturer allegedly had an agreement with Ganton on selling its basic trainer aircraft to the Indian Air Force. In return, the company would sign an investment agreement with Ganton to meet offset obligations.
The Israeli company was allegedly in touch with Ganton regarding a highly classified tender it was participating in to provide two aircraft for electronic intelligence to RAW.
The global small arms manufacturer is closely involved with Ganton and Verma, documents and emails suggest. Verma's wife Neacsu met MoS (Defence) M M Pallam Raju as a representative of the company in December 2011. The meeting took place after Ganton, of which she is a senior employee, received payments from RAD to take it off the blacklist.
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