‘Cabinet seat in Shinde govt for Rs 100 crore’: How conmen targeted MLAs in ‘cash-for-berths’ scam

‘Cabinet seat in Shinde govt for Rs 100 crore’: How conmen targeted MLAs in ‘cash-for-berths’ scam

Mumbai Police Crime Branch's preliminary probe suggests accused tried to take advantage of political flux in Maharashtra brought about by Sena split that culminated in fall of MVA govt.

A man counts Indian currency notes inside a shop in Mumbai, India, August 13, 2018 | Reuters

A man counts Indian currency notes inside a shop in Mumbai, India, August 13, 2018 | Reuters

Mumbai: In July last year, Rahul Kul, the BJP MLA from Daund in Maharashtra’s Pune district, got a call from one ‘Riyaz bhai’, who claimed he could secure a cabinet berth for the legislator in exchange for Rs 100 crore.

Six months later, Riyaz Shaikh and six others have been charged in what has now come to be known as the ‘cash-for-berth’ scam.

On 13 January this year, the anti-extortion cell (AEC) of the Mumbai Police Crime Branch submitted a 439-page chargesheet against the seven accused in the ‘cash-for-berth’ scam — Riyaz Allahbaksh Shaikh (41), Yogesh Kulkarni (57), Sagar Sanghoi (37), Jaffar Ahmed Usmani (53), Nandkishore Prasad alias NK Singh (59), Vishal Dilip Kale alias Singh (30) and Pawan Mutreja (40).

The accused were charged under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for cheating, impersonating a public servant, forgery, and criminal conspiracy.

The accused, says the chargesheet, are all conmen — from Delhi and across Maharashtra, including from Kolhapur, Thane and Mumbai — with multiple cases of cheating against them. 

ThePrint reached Mumbai Police Crime Branch officers via call but they declined to comment.

ThePrint also reached three senior BJP leaders, namely Kul, Samadhan Autade (MLA from Pandharpur), and Subhash Deshmukh (MLA from Solapur) — who were targets in the ‘cash-for-berth’ scam — via text message but did not get a response by the time of publication. This report will be updated when a response is received.

The preliminary probe suggests that the accused, in a bid to make a quick buck, were trying to take advantage of the fluid political situation in Maharashtra brought about by the split within the Shiv Sena that culminated in the fall of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government.

In June last year, 40 Sena MLAs led by Eknath Shinde rebelled against party chief and then CM Uddhav Thackeray to bring down his three-party (Sena-NCP-Congress) coalition government, before joining hands with the BJP. Shinde was sworn in as the chief minister and BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as the deputy chief minister.

As a result, there were many aspirants for cabinet berths among the Sena MLAs Shinde weaned away from the Thackeray-led faction. Similarly, there were many within the BJP — which had been out of power in the state since 2019 — hoping for a cabinet portfolio in the Shinde-Fadnavis administration.

The government was initially formed only with Shinde and Fadnavis’s swearing-in on 30 June. The cabinet was first expanded in early August with nine ministers from each of the two parties with the promise of a second expansion soon. However, the second expansion hasn’t come to pass yet.

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‘Senior politician in Delhi’ — the con

Their eyes fixated on the change in government in Maharashtra, four of the accused in the case — Vishal Kale, Jaffar Usmani, Nandkishore Prasad and Pawan Mutreja — allegedly decided to hatch a plan to con state legislators.

In July 2022, they contacted fellow accused Sagar Sanghoi and tasked him with identifying politicians who were interested in cabinet posts. Sanghoi then asked Riyaz Sheikh and Yogesh Kulkarni to carry out the task.

According to Kul’s statement cited in the chargesheet, the BJP MLA said he received a call on his mobile phone on 12 July last year from one ‘Riyaz bhai’ who told him that he was “in contact with a senior politician in Delhi”, and could get Kul a cabinet post in the Shinde government in exchange for Rs 100 crore if the legislator was interested.

“But then I told him that I am not interested in getting a cabinet post like that,” Kul said in his statement.

On 17 July, Kul’s personal assistant Omkar Thorat said one Riyaz bhai from Delhi had come to see him and they decided to meet at a five-star hotel in Mumbai. “When I met him that evening at the hotel’s cafeteria, I was certain he was the same guy who contacted me a few days back,” Kul said.

During that meeting, Riyaz told Kul that he could get the berth for Rs 90 crore but must pay 20 per cent of the total amount (Rs 18 crore) immediately. “I realised then that he is some conman and with the intention that his gang should be arrested, I asked him to meet me the next day,” said the MLA.

According to his statement, Kul — after talking to senior leaders of his party — decided to lay a trap for the conmen and lodged a complaint in this regard with the Marine Drive police station in Mumbai. As a result, Riyaz was apprehended when he came to the five-star hotel the next day to accept the token amount.

A similar pattern was used by the accused to con the other two MLAs, Autade and Deshmukh.

However, in their statements, the two said that they told Riyaz over the phone that they were not interested in ‘buying’ cabinet berths. “Then, I never received any calls from him and a few days later, I saw on TV news that he was arrested,” the MLAs said in their statements to the AEC.

‘Duped Chhota Shakeel’s brother-in-law’

Riyaz’s interrogation led investigators to Yogesh Kulkarni, Sagar Sanghoi, and Jaffar Usmani who too were arrested days later.

Usmani led them to Delhi-based Nandkishor Prasad alias NK Singh, a mine owner from Jharkhand’s Bokaro district, who he claimed was in touch with senior politicians in Delhi. 

A police team then arrested Singh from Bokaro.

According to the chargesheet, the police are still looking for accused Pawan Mutreja, whose phone has been “switched off since August”.

The crime branch further said Singh used a fake visiting card to impersonate a senior central government employee.

The chargesheet also said that the police relied on call data records (CDRs), WhatsApp chats, SIM cards and audio recordings of the phone calls where the alleged demand was made, besides mobile handsets of the accused that were sent for forensic examination.

Interestingly, mobile chats and call records of the accused also revealed that they extracted Rs 50 lakh from gangster Chhota Shakeel’s brother-in-law Salim Qureshi alias Fruit on the promise that they would save him from the clutches of the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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