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Zee Media Exclusive on AI scandal: Officials, ex-minister Praful Patel were paid bribes?

An investigation by Zee News (sister concern of dna) has thrown new light into the bribe and bid rigging scandal allegedly involving former civil aviation minister Praful Patel.


Zee Media Exclusive on AI scandal: Officials, ex-minister Praful Patel were paid bribes?

New Delhi: Even as the scandal of AgustaWestland VVIP chopper involving bribery and corruption by high-level officials for purchasing a new fleet of helicopters continues to rock Parliament, new details have emerged in a similar scandal allegedly involving a Union minister under the UPA rule who was let off by the office of then Prime Minister on flimsy grounds.

An investigation by Zee News (sister concern of dna) has thrown new light into the bribe and bid rigging scandal involving former civil aviation minister Praful Patel and a contract for Air India's facial recognition software with Canadian firm Cryptometrics. 

The Ontario court in Canada in 2014 convicted India-born Candian businessman Nazir Karagir for offering bribes to Air India officials and Patel to win the contract worth US$ 100 million. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012 cleared Patel's name after examining the matter at the minister's behest.

According to the letter written by Patel to the PM, the tender remained "inconclusive and was scrapped virtually at the inception and no follow-up action was taken in this regards".

Documents obtained by Zee News suggest that the deal with the Canadian firm was taken forward in meetings and communication, almost a year after the tender in question was allegedly scrapped, and that money was paid from foreign shores to Air India officials to influence the contract in favor of the Canadian firm. 

Contrary to Patel's defence that the project was scrapped and never followed up, Zee News has found that the tender in question was recommended by Air India Tender Committee in September 2006 to award the contract to Cryptometrics Canada at the cost of $105,000,000. A copy of the tender available with Zee News shows that the Cryptometrics was to recover the cost of the $100 million project from flight passengers (approximately 50,000,000 for period of five years) at no extra cost to Air India.

Even before the tender was floated in February 2006, Karigar approached officials from Cryptometrics posing as a businessman whose firm has done business in India, and discussed the passenger identification solution for Air India using the company's technology. Karigar indicated that he and his associates had the necessary connections with Air India management and politicians to win the contract, the judgement by Ontario court notes.

The judgment also points out that after convincing officials at Cryptometrics of the deal, Karigar played his role as an agent between the Candian firm and Air India officials as well as the miniser of civil Aviation to help the firm win the contract. Email communication between Karigar and Mario Berini, the chief operating officer for Cryptometrics Canada, reveals that as a part of the deal $200,000 were transferred from Cryptometrics USA to the bank account of Deputy Director of Security, Air India Captain Mascarenhas who was also the co-chair of the selection committee for the project in Mumbai on June 21, 2006.

After Cryptometrics was shortlisted in August 2006, Karigar sought another $5000 for the Chairman and Managing Director, Air India who was to be in New York. Vasudevan Thulasidas who was the CMD at the time, told Zee News that he never asked or received any money in New York or elsewhere from Karigar or his representatives.

"After a detailed examination (of the biometric proposal), it was I who decided to not go in for such a system,'' he said in an email reply.

The project it seems was, however, not dropped. The court judgement further details events in 2007 where Karigar sent an email to the Berini saying that he had 'met with PP' (Praful Patel) and they discussed the ìncrements' that the project would be cleared right away.

Around May, Karigar admitted to have paid Minister Patel a bribe through an agent in order to clear the process and obtain the Air India contract for Cryptometrics. Although the amount or the identity of the agent is not known, Karigar has said that government figures would get "up to 8 per cent of the value of a contract as a bribe payment.'' 

When the file did not move forward, on July 12,2007, in an email sent by Karigar to Berini, he wrote: "After PP took the money, I thought all was done and went ahead... I guess by now you know why Patel has the Cryptometrics project on hold.''

Finally in August, Karigar decided to report the case anonymously to the Fraud Section (FCPA) of the US department of Justice informing them about US citizens paying bribes to foreign officers. Karigar was sentenced to three years in prison for arranging bribes to public officials in India by the Ontario court in 2014.

When contacted by Zee News for his response that contrary to the information given by him that the bio metric project was scrapped and the evidence by the judgment of the Candian court that bribes were paid to win the contract, Patel dismissed the allegation as "bogus.'' 

Once again reinforcing that the tender was "scrapped'', Patel said that such tenders are dealt by Air India and never come to the ministry. "This gentleman (Karigar) has misused my name and may be of others to cheat his company and court verdict says it could not be proved or verified about my involvement.''

Patel added that when the matter first came to light in media had written to the PM and asked him to investigate the matter with any agency including the CBI. "The PM wrote back to me after due examination that he was satisfied there was no wrongdoing on my part."

From Zee News

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