The report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) on the controversial issuance of bonds by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, which was tabled in Parliament last week created a stir in the political circles. The Weekend Nation spoke to Parliamentarians representing some of the major political parties on their views and what needs to be done from here on.

Sunil Handunnetti
Sunil Handunnetti

COPE wants public watchdog to enter fray

Public funds have been misappropriated, and the people have the right to know about it, says Handunnetti

Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), Parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti said that he would suggest that the Speaker open COPE proceedings to the media. In an interview with Weekend Nation, Handunnetti also spoke about the responses to the recent report on the controversial Central Bank bond scam and on the responsibilities of the Executive and the Legislature in implementing its recommendations.

Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Arthur Wamanan
Q. Now that the COPE report is out. What is your view on the reactions to the recommendations to the report?
The report has triggered a lot of reactions, due to the magnitude of the controversy which surrounds the issue. We are happy about it. However, the report has to be printed, distributed among Parliamentarians. Then it should be debated in Parliament first. There is no point in sending it to other people. There is no problem in sending the report to the Attorney General. However, before inquiring into the legal validity of the report, it should be debated in Parliament. Parliament has to decide whether or not to implement the recommendations of COPE. That is important. Then the Executive should take the necessary steps after the debate.

If it is not implemented then it means that the Executive is disregarding responsibilities. In the same way Parliament is also disregarding its responsibilities. In one of our recommendations we have said that Parliament is directly responsible with regard to the implementation of the recommendations of COPE. How does the Parliament be responsible? The Parliament should assure the people of this country that the recommendations are being implemented. If the government does not see it through, Parliament will have to bring another proposal and get it approved. It is the responsibility of COPE to monitor the progress.

Q. There were allegations levelled against members of COPE that they had violated the Parliament Act by divulging information   about the proceedings. What do you have to say about that?
There were various versions that were reported about the COPE report and its contents. One reason for this could have been that the media would have given a spin to it. The other reason would have been that the members would have interpreted the content differently.

My suggestion to this issue is to open up the proceedings to the media. This does not mean that they would intimidate the official who is giving evidence. But it is the right of the media. This is a matter concerning public funds. We are not looking into issues concerning an individual’s private property.

The proceedings of the Chamber are entered in the Hansard. It is because the public should know about it. If that is the case why hide this? Parliament is in charge of controlling tax funds and how well they are utilized. Therefore, this is also the right of the people. This is the only way to control theft. Only thieves should be afraid of the public coming to know about it.

Q. Would you suggest this to Parliament or the necessary officials?
Yes. I will remind the Speaker about the need to open the proceedings to the media during the next Parliament sessions.

Q. But don’t you think that opening up the proceedings to the media would intimidate the officials or it could affect their dignity?
My suggestion is that the media be invited to play the role of the watchdog. They will not intervene or interject. They will merely observe and report. This is only to ensure that the media does not mislead the public by misinterpreting the process. However, as you said issues could arise because of this. Privacy of those providing evidence should be protected. Therefore, we may have to establish a code of ethics and how journalists could report the progress.

Q. Do you think that there would be a need to amend the existing laws if you are to invite the media?
I don’t think so. There is no need for amendments. The COPE Chairman is authorized to summon anyone. So, the Chairman could use this authority to call on the media.

Karunaratne Paranawithana
Karunaratne Paranawithana

‘We’ll not meddle with COPE finding’

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody
Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Karunaratne Paranawithana spoke to Weekend Nation concerning the Government’s and the United National Party’s stance regarding the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) report into the scam pertaining to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Treasury bond issue involving its former Governor Arjuna Mahendran, his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius and according to Mahendran, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Following are excerpts:
Q : There has been a multiplicity of views proffered by members of the Government about the matter. For an example, Deputy Minister of Public Enterprise Development, Eran Wickramaratne has stated that if the laws at present are insufficient with regard to recovering the losses incurred due to the deal involving Treasury bonds, the Government would not hesitate to bring in new legislation. He had also added that Chairman of the COPE, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna MP Sunil Handunneththi possessed the power to handover the report into the scam to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption and the Police Financial Crimes Investigation Division. Wickramaratne had opined that in comparison with other large scale frauds that had taken place in the past, the one concerning the issue of Treasury bonds could not be considered the biggest fraud in the country’s history. Where exactly does the Government stand in relation to this?
There is only one opinion. That is the opinion of the COPE report. This is also the opinion of the Government.

Q: Will new laws be brought in to deal with it?
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is in favour of an investigation into the matter, which is now before the Attorney General. The law at present will be applicable. Deputy Minister of Public Enterprise Development, Eran Wickramaratne may have called for new laws because previously when large scale fraud and corruption had taken place in various fields and sectors, the existent laws had been inadequate.

Q: What is the next course of action on the part of the Government with regard to this?
Parliament and the Government will allow for the process of investigation or filing legal action.

Mahinda Amaraweera
Mahinda Amaraweera

COPE report is result of good governance

By Arthur Wamanan
General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Mahinda Amaraweera said that the events that followed the submission of the COPE report was significant since this was the first time that all parties unanimously decided to act on the recommendations.

Speaking to Weekend Nation, Amaraweera also explained the purpose behind the appointment of a committee consisting of MPs of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Following are excerpts:
Q. The COPE report has created a bit of a stir in the political front. What is your view on the report, its recommendations and the context in which the report was submitted?
The good governance government was established with the expectation that it would eliminate corruption and make sure such allegations are probed whether they are within the government or not. That is what is happening here as well. There were allegations against the former Central Bank, Governor the COPE probed into it and has submitted its report. All the parties have accepted its findings.

What is significant about this is that this is probably the first time that there has been some action taken based on the recommendations of the report. All these years the COPE submits its report and that would be the end of it. But this time, the report was eagerly awaited and its contents were discussed on several platforms.

Q. There were reports that certain members of the government, notably members of the United National Party (UNP) had tried to protect the former governor. Is it true?
I have not heard anything like that.

Q. Is there a rift within the government due to a certain section of it trying to protect the former governor?
No. There is no rift or anything like that. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had recently stated that action would be taken if anyone was found guilty. Therefore, I don’t see anyone from the government trying to protect anyone here. As I said earlier, this government would ensure that corruption would be eliminated.

Q. President Maithripala Sirisena had appointed a seven-member committee to study the recommendations of COPE. Can you explain the reason behind the appointment of the committee and what would be the outcome of it?
The reason for the committee to be appointed is for us to go through the report and give our own report to the President. The President would then take a decision on the matter.

Q. When do you have to submit the report to the President?
We have about a month to study the COPE report and submit our report.

 Vasudeva Nanayakkara
Vasudeva Nanayakkara

Fears over PM’s interference to save Mahendran

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody
Joint Opposition MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara spoke to Weekend Nation about their interventions concerning the controversy surrounding the bonds scam.

Following are excerpts:
Q: The Joint Opposition has gone to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption regarding this and has also called for the assets of former Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), Arjuna Mahendran and his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius to be frozen. What else is in store? 
This is a hard, uphill struggle. The Government and its head, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is at the centre of the controversy. Wickremesinghe wields power in the Government. Under these circumstances, the outcome therefore will be determined on his actions.

Q: What is the significance of a Parliamentary Select Committee in this regard?
A special Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) should be appointed in this regard. It is the best way. The PSC has the authority to overlook the process. The PSC can summon the Attorney General and the Inspector General of Police, call for progress reports, monitor and apply the necessary pressure on the Government.

Q: Are new laws required for this?
No new laws are needed. The serious offences committed include the criminal breach of trust, conspiracy and the misappropriation of public property, the magnitude of which can be understood by the amounts involved.

Q: Do you believe that the recommendations of the Committee on Public Enterprises will not be implemented?
There will be attempts at a cover-up. There will be attempts to influence the Attorney General. There were attempts to scuttle the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). Wickremesinghe tried to exonerate Mahendran. Wickremesinghe tried to misrepresent matters and he also tried to reappoint Mahendran after his term came to an end. He also did not heed President Maithripala Sirisena’s comments in that the best thing for Mahendran to do was to resign. When I queried regarding the matter and Wickremesinghe’s involvement in protecting Mahendran, during a question and answer session in Parliament, Wickremesinghe cut into State Minister of Finance, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and disrupted the procedure.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said that there was nothing further that he could do. The Inspector General of Police said that files regarding the matter had been sent to the Attorney General for legal advice. Wickremesinghe will do everything he can to suppress this. His conduct has incriminated him. According to the law on Evidence, seeking to prevent facts being exposed or being a partner to an offence is illegal.

Q: What is the role of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka now, in relation to this?
The Monetary Board will accept or amend and add to the CBSL report and make it available for public consumption and distribution among the public. The content of the report, which has been leaked already, are valid.

Q: What should be done with regard to information in the COPE report being leaked to the media prior to the presentation of it in Parliament?
COPE has the right to report any member, who seeks to undermine it or harass any member, to Parliament. The removal of such persons from COPE and their replacements with members of political parties should be considered.

Q: Is the Joint Opposition going to bring in no-faith motion against Wickremesinghe?
The Joint Opposition is focusing in a single-minded way on Wickremesinghe’s involvement and his misconduct as this is the biggest obstacle to the process. We are waiting to see the public opinion from independent quarters regarding this and in the meantime we will expose evidence of his involvement, prior to the no-confidence motion, which is not a priority at this juncture.