Health Sector Syndicate: Strange laxity let it off hook
Motazzaroul Islam Mithu might not have come this far had the Anti-Corruption Commission exercised due diligence years back.
Mithu, who has several medical equipment supplying companies including Lexicon Merchandize and Meditech Imaging Ltd, controls the tenders in the health sector, according to a letter of former CMSD director Brig Gen Md Shahidullah.
The syndicate of Mithu looted about Tk 450 crore without supplying any medical equipment to the Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and Hospital, reads the letter issued to the public administration ministry on May 30.
Amid controversies over the purchase of substandard PPEs and N95 masks, Shahidullah was taken back from Central Medical Stores Depot (CMSD) to the Army Headquarters on May 23. He died of Covid-19 last month.
In the letter, he further said the syndicate also controlled the purchases in the depot.
Besides, the ruling party MP of Noakhali-4, Ekramul Karim Chowdhury, in June sought the prime minister's intervention to bring Mithu to the book.
In 2013, when some serious anomalies in the health sector surfaced, the ACC asked Mithu to submit a wealth statement following the allegation that he had amassed wealth about Tk 50 crore beyond the known source of income.
But he did not bother to respond to the notice.
The following year, in November 2014, Mithu bought a villa in New York spending Tk 6.6 crore ($847,500), according to a US-based real estate information providing online service.
After waiting for his reply for three years, the ACC on May 10, 2016 finally filed a case against him for not submitting a wealth statement.
But the case did not roll into the court as the then Commission decided to conclude the case with a final report.
Contacted, ACC's Assistant Director Sirajul Haque, investigation officer of the case, on July 14 this year said there were some procedural flaws and that was why the Commission decided to give the final report instead of a charge sheet.
Asked what exactly the flaws were, Haque said he could not say it without seeing the documents and asked this correspondent to call later.
The correspondent tried to reach him later over the phone but failed.
"Had thecharge sheet been filed at that time, Mithu wouldn't have become so desperate," said an ACC top official, preferring to be unnamed.
ACC GOT ANOTHER CHANCE
In 2016, when the ACC filed the case, Mithu also made news as his name surfaced in Panama and Paradise Papers leaks.
The first leak published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2013, contained names of 32 Bangladeshis.
In its second instalment in 2016, the ICIJ named three new companies, 14 new addresses and 24 individuals with links to Bangladesh.
The leak showed some shady transaction among Mithu, two other Bangladeshis -- Mohammad Moksedul Islam and Benzir Ahmed -- and some foreign organsiations.
Moksedul is the owner of Blair Aviation, which is among 14 medical suppliers recently blacklisted by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).
He is also the managing director of Lexicon Merchandize, as per the company website. His New York residence address is the same as Mithu's, according to the contact directory of the city.
On the other hand, Benzir is a neighbour of Mithu in New York. In fact, he bought a villa on the same day Mithu bought his. Benzir, chief executive officer of Lexicon Merchandize, bought it at $873,000, according to property selling new sites in New York.
After the leak, the ACC formed a three-member committee headed by Deputy Director SM Akhtar Hamid Bhuiyan to inquire about the persons named in the leaks to find whether money was laundered.
Contacted on July 16, Akhtar said they had asked forinformation from various authorities on the transactions by the persons. "We haven't got any information yet. Our inquiry is going on."
While the ACC was struggling to get information, Mithu was expanding his empire in the US.
In 2017, he opened a medical supplying company named M Gateway Corporation, says opengovny.com, which provides open access to data issued by New York State Government Agencies.
According to the website, Mithu is CEO of the company, whose annual revenue is $1 million.
The correspondent tried to reach him over the phone at his M Gateway Corporation. But the number belongs to another medical equipment supplying company owned by a Bangladeshi expat and next door neighbour of Mithu.
MITHU DIDN'T FACE ACC QUIZZING
On July 1 this year, the ACC summoned five persons including Mithu to quiz over the N95 mask and PPE scams. He was asked to appear before the Commission on July 9. But Mithu did not come.
In a letter to the ACC, he said he has been living permanently in the US since 2015 and comes to Bangladesh occasionally. "I'm not involved in any irregularities."
Contacted, ACC Chairman Iqbal Mahmood said he was not aware of the reason behind giving the final report instead of a charge sheet in the case.
Regarding the Panama Paper leak enquiry, he said the 2015 amendment to the Money Laundering Act has curtailed ACC's power to deal with money laundering allegations.
"We can now investigate and file money laundering cases only against government officials," he said, adding, "We're not inquiring Panama Papers Leak anymore. Other government agencies will do it."
Asked about media reports and the lawmaker's statement on Mithu's syndicate, he said, "We cannot prosecute anyone without documents. The public can raise many allegations but we don't want to be a laughingstock at court for prosecuting anyone without proof."
He said they are handling corruption in the health sector with iron fists. "Enquiry is going on against Mithu."
However, documents show that the ACC filed money laundering cases against businessmen apart from government officials under the money laundering act.
For instance, on May 13, 2019, the ACC filed a case against BNP leader Mosaddek Ali Falu and three businessmen under the Money Laundering Act for laundering Tk 183.92 crore to Dubai.
Pointing out the interpretation of two High Court benches on ACC jurisdiction over money laundering, ACC lawyer Khurshid Alam said, "If the laundering comes to the purview of corruption, the Anti-Corruption Commission has the jurisdiction to investigate it no matter what is mentioned in the statute."
"The High Court benches have made the observation at least two years ago. To my knowledge, the Appellate Division to the date has not interfered in it," he added.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, said irrespective of the way the ACC explains it, their role, particularly the failure to act in due course, definitely puts much of the burden on itself.
"There are other factors why corruption continues unabated, but it is also beyond doubt that if ACC could have set at least a handful of examples of bringing to book some such nationally and internationally listed ringleaders, corruption in general and health sector in particular could be much more controlled," he said.
The ACC is expected to explain what really are the factors behind the dividing line for which it continues to leave such examples of deficits to exercise its authority and remains confined to small fries letting the big fish off the hook.
He added that the Commission must face the mirror to ask itself if such failures, apparently due to its fear or favour based on identity, status or links, are not equating itself with those who are more directly colluding, protecting and promoting corruption in the country.