Guwahati: Five “associates” of Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, who were called for questioning by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) earlier this year, were summoned in relation to the Nagaland High Court building scam, ThePrint has learnt.
Kuovisieo Rio, Dsesevi Pielie, Vibeilietuo Kets, Mengutuo Rio and Mhalelie Rio had received ED summons in February under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002.
But, as reported by ThePrint earlier, the matter came to light only last month, following a statement by the Rising People’s Party, a Nagaland-based political party, hailing the ED’s action as a “turning point in the state’s history”.
According to the list of appointments furnished in the Nagaland government’s official calendar and diary 2022, Kuovisieo Rio works as a special assistant in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO).
The other four — Dsesevi, Vibeilietuo, Mengutuo and Mhalelie — are contractors from Dimapur and, according to a source in the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, are the CM’s “right-hand men” and “partners in contract works”.
Sources in the ED told ThePrint that the five had been called for questioning in relation to an alleged scam involving the misappropriation of funds by government officials and contractors during the construction of the new high court complex in Nagaland’s capital, Kohima.
The five had sought interim protection from the Gauhati High Court against the ED summons, but the court rejected the “interim prayer” and listed the matter for 9 May.
Gauhati High Court advocate Siddhartha Borgohain, who is representing the five individuals, told ThePrint, “The matter is sub judice and I cannot comment much, but certain provisions of the PMLA have been challenged.” Borgohain did confirm that the ED case is related to the alleged Nagaland High Court construction scam.
ThePrint reached Ayieno Kechu, media officer to the chief minister, via text message, but was told that Neiphiu Rio was out of station.
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High court project
The alleged scam first came to light in 2017 after the Nagaland Tribes Council (NTC) filed an RTI application about the project.
The NTC in a press release noted that foundation stones had been laid for new high court complexes in Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Tripura in 2007. But while the projects in the other three states had been completed by 2013, the new high court complex in Nagaland was still unfinished. This remains the case, and Nagaland is still under the ambit of the Gauhati High Court.
The response to the RTI revealed that funds for the project had been withdrawn 18 times between March 2009 and March 2017, amounting to Rs 52.63 crore in total — exceeding the initial estimate by Rs 9.63 crore. And yet, “only 35 per cent (of construction) was achieved on the ground”.
After this was reported, the Gauhati High Court took suo motu cognisance of the case and registered a public interest litigation (PIL) against the Nagaland government, including the Department of Finance, the Department of Justice and Law, the Department of Planning, and the Public Works Department.
The respondents attempted to justify the money utilised, but the high court in a 2018 order noted that two of the respondents — the commissioner and secretary of the Department of Justice and Law, and the commissioner and secretary of the Public Works Department — were silent “as to whether the state government has submitted the utilisation certificate to the central government to substantiate its claim that the fund allotted for the said purpose was in fact utilised in a proper manner meant for the purpose and for no other purpose whatsoever.”
“The foundation stone was laid long back in the year 2007, and it is highly surprising to find that the progress of the work is pitiable during the last 10 years. At the same time, Rs 52.63 crore has already been withdrawn for the said purpose,” the Gauhati High Court said in its judgment.
The court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct a preliminary inquiry into “allegations of misappropriation of public money vis-à-vis the snail pace of construction work of the new high court complex”.
Following the high court’s order, the CBI conducted a preliminary inquiry and filed a first information report (FIR) in 2019. It named 10 officials of the Nagaland Public Works Department, four contractors, and “unknown others” as accused in the case.
The FIR, accessed by ThePrint, says the preliminary inquiry “disclosed that the accused engineers of Nagaland PWD in criminal conspiracy with each other and also with the accused contractors had defrauded huge funds total amounting to Rs 3,61,72,552/- and including substandard construction”.
The agency found instances of “substandard construction” in the main high court building, as well as allegedly unaccounted and misappropriated payments in three other areas — “construction of the retaining wall in the new high court complex”, “addition work for providing the retaining wall” and “construction of retaining wall and site levelling at new high court complex”.
It also found that components worth over Rs 7 lakh meant to be used in the electric substation were missing, and that the length and width of the road from the main highway to the main high court building were shorter than prescribed.
The CBI had booked the accused under Section 120B (read with Section 420) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deal with criminal conspiracy and cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property. It had also invoked Section 13(2), read with Section 13(1)(d), of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, dealing with public servants who commit criminal misconduct involving using their position for pecuniary advantages.
This report has been updated to further clarify the exact response of the media officer to the chief minister.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)
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