Cash for jobs scam: Hours after SC grants it 5 days’ custody, ED picks up Tamil Nadu Minister Senthil Balaji

The Bench comprising Justices AS Bopanna and MM Sundresh held that the order of remand cannot be challenged in a habeas corpus petition.

ByVinodh Arulappan | Parmod Kumar

Published Aug 07, 2023 | 1:31 PM Updated Aug 07, 2023 | 11:20 PM

Tamil Nadu Minister V Senthil Balaji was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate last year. (Screengrab)

The Enforcement Directorate (ED), late on Monday, 7 August, took Tamil Nadu Minister Senthil Balaji into custody, hours after the Supreme Court gave a green signal for the agency to interrogate the minister.

On Monday morning, a division bench comprising Justices AS Bopanna and MM Sundresh ordered five days’ custody of Balaji for the ED to interrogate him.

Following this, ED officials submitted the apex court order to the principal sessions court. The sessions court sent a wire order to the Puzhal central prison, where Balaji was lodged in judicial custody.

Later in the evening, Balaji was produced before the sessions judge, via video conferencing. The judge informed Balaji that he was being sent to the ED’s custody. The court directed ED officials to provide necessary medical assistance, if needed, to Balaji and directed them to produce him in court on 12 August.

The ED officials then picked Balaji from the prison, and took him under heavy security to the Joint Director’s Office at Nungambakkam in Chennai.

Balaji was seen unshaven and in a blue shirt and black pants. According to sources in ED, a medical team has been kept on standby in the ED office to take care of Balaji.

Tight security was provided in the ED office complex after Balaji was taken in for the inquiry.

What happened in the Supreme Court?

Earlier in the day, upholding the legality of the arrest of Senthil Balaji, the Supreme Court granted his custody for five days to the ED.

A bench comprising justices AS Bopanna and MM Sundresh, while dismissing petitions challenging the ED custody, held that a habeas corpus plea cannot challenge the remand order. The judges also observed that the habeas corpus petition filed against the arrest by the ED was not maintainable. Balaji’s wife Megala had filed the petitions.

The court ruled that the word “such custody” mentioned in 67(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure would include police custody, and hence the ED, too, has the power to arrest a person.

Further, the judges said that in case of any violation of the procedure for arrest prescribed in Section 19 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), then action could be taken against the officer concerned in terms of Section 62 of the PMLA.

The ED’s plea was heard along with the two pleas filed by Balaji and his wife and the court dismissed both.

Related: We have a duty to interrogate Senthil Balaji, ED tells SC

‘Available till 60 days after arrest’

“The order pronounced by Justice Sundresh said that the 15 days custody under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act will be available to the ED till 60 days period (from the day of arrest) under the Section 167 of Code of Criminal Procedure,” advocate Arjun Garg who appeared for Balaji told South First.

Section 167 of the Code of Criminal Procedure provides for the procedure for further custody when an investigation could not be completed within twenty-four hours after arrest.

In the case of Senthil Balaji, the 60 days period will be completed on 12 August, 2023. He was arrested on 14 June.

“Having given the custody of Senthil Balaji to the ED till 12 August, the court today (Monday) referred to a larger bench a 1992 judgment in the Anupam Kulkarni case,” said Garg.

In the Anupam Kulkarni case, a three-judge bench had ruled the investigating agency would not be entitled to the custody of an accused for interrogation after the expiry of 15 days from the date of arrest irrespective of reasons and circumstances under which it (investigating agency) could not get the custody of the accused.

However, a two-judge bench of the top court in a judgment pronounced on 10 April, 2023, differed with the three-judge bench. The two-judge bench headed by Justice MR Shah (since retired) had ruled contrary to the position taken by the three-judge bench earlier.

‘Habeas corpus petition not maintainable’

The court today further said that the habeas corpus petition by Megala after the arrest of Senthil Balaji by the ED was not maintainable and if they were aggrieved by the remand order, they could have challenged it.

Senthil Balaji had contended that after the expiry of the first 15 days after his arrest, when he was hospitalised for coronary surgery, could not be excluded for giving his custody to ED, while ED had contended that the first 15 after the arrest of Senthil Balaji when he was in hospital, were liable to excluded as during that period it could not interrogate him.

Senthil Balaji and his wife Megala had challenged the Madras High Court decision upholding the arrest of Senthil Balaji and subsequently magistrate court remanding him to judicial custody.

Balaji’s advocates also argued that the ED did not have the power to make an arrest under the PMLA and seek a police remand.

Solicitor General Tushar Meta who appeared for the ED contended that the high court had erred in even entertaining Megala’s habeas corpus petition.

Related: ED has no vested right to seek custody 15 days after arrest, Balaji tells SC

What next?

With the Supreme Court now granting Balaji’s custody to the ED, the central agency would send a copy of the order to the judicial magistrate concerned and the prison department.

Further, the ED officials would take Balaji into their custody from Puzhal Central Prison and take him for interrogation.

On the fifth day, the ED would again produce Balaji before the judicial magistrate court. According to sources, the ED has time till 12 August to take Balaji into custody.

Balaji was shifted to the Puzhal Central Prison on 17 July, after he was discharged from a private hospital following a coronary bypass surgery.

Related: Fresh statewide raids by ED on properties owned by associates of Balaji

The case against Balaji

Balaji was arrested by the ED on 14 June in an alleged “cash for job” scam that took place when he was a minister (2011-2015) in the government of late chief minister J Jayalalithaa.

The case against Balaji dates back to November 2014, when the Metropolitan Transport Corporation advertised a recruitment drive to fill up various vacancies. Soon, allegations of corruption surfaced.

Balaji, who was the transport minister in the AIADMK government, joined the DMK in 2018.

After his arrest, the high court permitted Balaji to be shifted to a private hospital for heart surgery and restricted his interrogation in the hospital.

He was operated for the blockages of three coronary arteries at a local private hospital in Chennai.

Related: DMK most corrupt, Stalin retaining Balaji out of fear, says Amit Shah

‘Cash for jobs’ scam

The first complainant was one Devasagayam, who claimed in October 2015 that he gave ₹2.6 lakh to Palani, a bus conductor, who promised his son a job in the state transport corporation.

Devasagayam claimed the conductor did not fulfil the promise nor returned his money. However, Balaji’s name did not figure in the complaint.

Balaji came into the picture when another man, Gopi, filed a similar complaint in March 2016.

The complainant said he had paid ₹2.4 lakh to two individuals, reportedly related to Balaji, for a conductor’s job. Gopi later approached the high court, accusing the police of inaction.

The court ordered the Crime Branch Assistant Commissioner to probe the case. The probe report, however, implicated only the 12 individuals mentioned in Devasagayam’s complaint. The report, submitted in 2017, excluded the minister and his relatives.

Meanwhile, more people came up with complaints. Transport Department employee V Ganesh Kumar alleged that the transport minister and three others had directed him to collect ₹95 lakh from job aspirants.

After he became a minister in the DMK-led government, his personal assistant Shanmugam and another man, R Sahayarajan, approached the victims with a compromise formula. However, the compromise move was seen as an admission of bribery, which caught the ED’s attention.