By Shanika Sriyananda
The special presidential commission probing large-scale corruption on Friday questioned former deputy Minister of Fisheries, Sarath Kumara Gunaratne, over his alleged involvement in the misuse of public funds for the 8 January presidential election campaign.
The commission, which has completed its preliminary investigations, commenced its first case by questioning the deputy minister for using Fisheries Ministry allocations for purchasing T-shirts and caps for the election campaign and also misusing public money to organise a series of functions which were part of the election campaign.
The commission is currently investigating allegations of massive corruption, including alleged financial fraud at government institutions and the misuse of public property during the tenure of the Rajapaksa regime.
After Gunaratne was questioned for nearly four hours by police investigators, it was revealed that the Fisheries Ministry money had been used for functions and ceremonies held to support the election campaign of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
A hurriedly organised ceremony, attended by Gunaratne and former Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa, was held to declare open a lagoon development project in Negombo on 4 January 2015, three days ahead of the election campaign. It was stated that money was to be used for the creation of a plaque for the project but it was revealed yesterday that the money had been used for the election campaign.
It was also revealed that there was a political rally in support of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Municipal Council grounds on 30 December which was organised with funds from the Fisheries Ministry.
“Based on information received during the questioning of the deputy minister, we came to know that there had been misuse of public money to hold these functions and the tender procedures are also being violated,” an official familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.
According to the official, all payments, to different institutions, especially to purchase T-shirts and caps for the election campaign of Rajapaksa, were made with Ministry funds.
“The misuse of ministry funds for the election campaigns runs into several millions of rupees,” he told Daily FT.
When contacted, the Commission’s Secretary Lacille de Silva said that several politicians were being lined up for questioning during the opening round of investigations which will look into around 50 complaints.
The commission, which was appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena, has received over 800 complaints over various allegations including financial irregularities, corruption, abuse of power and political interference at state institutions.
He said that a special court set up at the BMICH for the first public hearing will commence proceedings soon, with sessions being held before a five-member team including four High Court judges - Preethi Padman Surasena as the Commission’s Chairman, Amandra Seneviratne, Vikum Kaluarachchi and Gihan Kulathunga and former Auditor General P.A. Premathilke.
De Silva said the police investigators were examining the former deputy minister’s claims and further steps were being taken with regard to the misappropriation of public funds at the Fisheries Ministry.