Chandigarh/ Mohali: Junior colleagues — working as ‘collection agents’ for bribes — would make calls demanding money on his behalf, collect the cash and then deposit it with jewellers as payment for gold bricks. This is how IAS officer Sanjay Popli, arrested in a case of graft, allegedly ran a “well-oiled corruption network” at the state’s Water and Sewage department, sources in the Punjab Vigilance Bureau told ThePrint.
According to sources, the bribe money was stocked with the jeweller till it became equivalent to the price of a 1 kg gold brick or gold coins. The brick or coins were then sent to the officer’s home, the source said.
Juniors in the department who worked for him and are now under probe, allegedly received only meagre amounts — between Rs 5,000 to 10,000 — for the job, claimed sources.
Popli was arrested by the Punjab Vigilance Bureau on 21 June, for allegedly demanding a cut of 1 per cent from a contractor, working on a project worth Rs 7.3 Crore, to lay sewerage pipelines at Nawashahr in the month of May. Another official, Sandeep Vats, posted as assistant secretary in the board, who worked closely with Popli, was also arrested.
Following Popli’s arrest, the Vigilance Bureau conducted raids at his residence on 22 and 25 June and claimed to have seized over 12 kg of gold, which included nine gold bricks — each weighing 1 kg — 49 gold biscuits, 12 gold coins, three silver bricks, 18 silver coins, Apple and Samsung phones, smart watches and Rs 3.5 lakh in cash.
“In the first raid after Popli’s arrest, we found empty boxes of 1 kg gold bricks. It had the name of the jeweller from where they were purchased. While someone from the family may have hidden the gold bricks, they left behind the boxes, which we found. We later confronted Popli and got him with us for another raid (at his residence). He then directed us to the store room where we finally found the bricks, along with other gold and silver,” a source in the department said.
“There were no bills, no account of these purchases,” the source claimed.
ThePrint contacted advocate Matwinder Singh, Popli’s lawyer, over phone, to respond to allegations made by the vigilance department, but he refused to respond. “It will not be possible to talk.. inconvenience regretted,” he said.
ThePrint also visited Popli’s residence in Sector 11, Chandigarh, but his wife Sri Popli, refused to talk about the case. The family’s cook, Yuvi, told ThePrint, “We have been asked to not talk about the case to anyone. Madam does not have any comments.”
A relative, however, refuted the allegations and termed it “plain harassment”.
Incidentally, on the same day that the vigilance team reached Popli’s residence for raids, the accused’s 27-year-old son — Kartik Popli — a law graduate, allegedly shot himself with his father’s licensed gun.
While the police have claimed it to be a case of suicide, Popli’s family has accused officers of the vigilance department of murder.
Who is Sanjay Popli?
Selected to the Punjab Civil Services in 1993, 58-year-old Popli was promoted to the civil service cadre in 2008.
He was, however, denied an integrity certificate by the then chief secretary of Punjab, owing to allegations of disciplinary issues against, claim officials in the state administration. According to procedure an integrity certificate signed by the chief secretary is required to put up an officer’s name to the selection committee for elevation.
Popli has served in the Industries Department, Welfare of SC and BC Department, Pensions, but only for short durations, officials in the Punjab administration told ThePrint.
He has held the post of an SDM in various districts across the state, but has never yet served as a district deputy commissioner after his elevation as IAS.
According to state government officials, given Popli’s brush with controversies, he was given the charge of Water Supply and Sewerage Board only after recommendation from a Congress leader.
The graft case is not the only ongoing one against Popli.
A day after his arrest in the bribery case, Chandigarh Police registered a case against him under the Arms Act, after the Vigilance Bureau claimed to have found unaccounted live cartridges from his house during searches, and recovered 73 bullets. ThePrint has a copy of the FIR.
Another case was registered against Popli in Abroha on 26 June for allegedly threatening the contractor of having him falsely implicate him in a case of rape of a Dalit woman, to get him to pay the bribe and withdraw the case against the IAS officer. ThePrint has a copy of the FIR.
Sources in vigilance also said that since Popli’s arrest, another contractor, from whom the officer had allegedly demanded a bribe earlier, has approached the investigators with a formal complaint.
“We are certain that there would be many contractors who may have paid the bribe (1 per cent) as commission, so that the officer does not create hindrances or stop their bills, payments. Now, they are coming forward. Another contractor who had paid the bribe approached us. We will be registering a case soon,” the source quoted above.
A meeting, a WhatsApp call & a video recording
The alleged corruption network came to fore after Sanjay Kumar, a contractor from Haryana’s Karnal, from whom a bribe of Rs 7 lakh was allegedly sought, refused to pay up the second instalment of Rs 3.5 lakh, and sent a video to the anti-corruption branch of the Punjab vigilance bureau purportedly showing the officer demanding the money.
The video was shot inside the car of Sandeep Vats where the money was allegedly handed over to him and the second instalment was allegedly demanded by Popli on a WhatsApp call.
According to Kumar’s complaint (originally in Punjabi), a copy of which is with ThePrint, it was on 28 October last year, that the Punjab Water and Sewerage department allotted him a tender to lay down sewerage pipes in Nawashehr for Rs 7.30 Crore, following which the work started.
Two months later, however, on 12 January 2022, Sandeep Vats, Popli’s assistant, called Kumar and allegedly asked for a bribe of Rs 7 lakh for the CEO, if he wanted “things to run smoothly”
“He told me that I should send the money at the earliest, else I would be in trouble and none of my bills will be cleared from the government department,” Kumar alleged in the complaint.
He added that although he did not want to pay the money, he agreed to give the first installment (Rs 3.5 lakh) to “avoid trouble”.
“I did not want the funds to stop and the work to suffer, so I decided to pay. I was helpless. I took out money from my PNB account and called Vats, who then asked me to come to the sewerage board office,” Kumar said.
According to Kumar’s complaint, when he reached the board’s office with the money, Vats called him and changed the location to meet at Chandigarh Sector 21 and the two then met at the location, inside Vats’ Verna car.
This is where the money was allegedly handed over to Vats’, following which he also made a WhatsApp call to Popli informing about receiving the “first installment”, claimed Kumar. This is what was secretly recorded by Kumar, which led to Popli’s arrest.
“I gave the money to Vats and then he made a WhatsApp call to Popli informing about receiving the money. Popli then asked him about the remaining payment of Rs 3.5 lakh and I told them that I would give that eventually,” Kumar alleged (in his complaint). He also alleged that Vats took another Rs 5,000 from him (in addition to the Rs 7 lakh bribe demanded).
According to Kumar, Vats kept following up for the remaining Rs 3.5 lakh with him and each time threatened him with consequences if the bribe was not paid. This, Kumar claimed, continued even after Popli was transferred from the said department in May and made director, Pensions.
It was after his transfer that Kumar decided to turn in the video to the vigilance department and a case was registered in this regard on 20 June.
Popli’s family members, however, denied the claims. While his wife refused to talk on the issue, a relative, who did not wish to be identified said, “All these stories seem made up. He is a hardworking officer who is being tainted. In fact, the vigilance department has been pressuring the family to give statements that suit their case. This is plain harassment and nothing else.”
“How could the department make an arrest based on a random complaint? Did they care to check the antecedents of the complainant, if he is motivated? This is bizarre,” the relative said.
‘Threats to withdraw complaint, a false rape case’
On 24 June, Sanjay Kumar filed yet another complaint against Popli. He alleged that Popli was threatening to falsely implicate him in a case of rape, if he refused to withdraw his complaint from the vigilance department.
Popli also allegedly asked Kumar to hand over the “audio-video recording” in which he was heard asking for the bribe money.
Following Kumar’s complaint, another case was registered against Popli for fabricating false evidence, extortion and criminal conspiracy, in Abohar district.
According to the FIR, a copy of which was accessed by ThePrint, Sanjay Popli sent two men to Karnal, who told Kumar that a Dalit woman has made a complaint of rape against him in Abohar, and she would get a formal case registered against Kumar, if he does not pay the promised bribe.
“I have come to Abohar for first time, just to give a complaint against Popli who has been threatening me. Sanjay Popli sent two men to us from Karnal who told us that, a woman in Abohar has given a complain of a rape against me and if we do not give the remaining bribe amount, withdraw our complaint from vigilance and hand over that video in which he is heard asking for a bribe, I would be arrested in a case of rape,” the FIR, originally in Punjabi, claimed.
‘I am being framed in this false case by Popli and he is using the law to create pressure on me to take back the complaint. Every now and then some unknown women call me at the behest of Popli, but I block them,” the FIR added.
According to investigators, there are many players in this network that still need to be identified.
“From peons to clerks, there are many staffers who knew about this racket and were also a part of it, although they were given meagre amounts. The investigation in the matter is on and more arrests in the case are likely,” the vigilance source quoted above said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)