Mumbai: Ignoring the ongoing criminal proceedings against the controversial New Jersey-based consultancy firm Louis Berger, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has approved its presence in the consortium that has bagged a contract for project and construction management services for the Metro-4 (Wadala-Thane-Kasarvadavali) corridor in Mumbai.
Louis Berger is a part of DB Engineering-led consortium that bagged the contract early this month.
Although not a “blacklisted company” in India as yet, Louis Berger is accused of being involved in a multi-crore bribery case and has two separate cases registered against it in Assam and Goa for allegedly bribing unnamed “officials” to corner water management consultancy projects.
These cases were registered following disclosures made by the company’s senior executives before a US court in 2015 that they and their consortium partners had – between 1998 and 2010 – paid bribes worth $976,6630 (approximately Rs 64.10 crore) to unnamed “officials” in the Assam and Goa governments.
While the investigation in the Assam link of the company continues and the company is already facing trial in another one in Goa, Louis Berger would be meanwhile preparing, packaging and finalising the tender documents for the Metro-4 project in Mumbai.
This recent contract was signed to lay a 32.32-km-long metro line that would connect Wadala in central Mumbai with the neighbouring Thane district. This elevated Metro corridor will be connected via the Eastern Express highway.
The Metro-4 corridor is expected to provide connectivity between the eastern expressway, central railway, monorail, the proposed Metro-2B that connects D.N. Nagar to Mandala in Mankhurd, the proposed Metro-5 between Thane and Kalyan, the proposed Metro-6 that would connect Swami Samarth Nagar to Vikhroli and the Metro-8 line from Wadala to GPO.
The total estimated cost of the construction is Rs 15,549 crore.
Last year, the Gauhati high court had chided the Assam CID for investigating the multi-crore corruption case involving Louis Berger in “a partisan manner” and had handed the case over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). On October 4, 2017, the CBI filed a 40-page FIR against “unknown officials” of Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority and Louis Berger in New Delhi.
In the Goa case, former chief minister and senior Congress leader Digambar Kamat has been named for his alleged involvement in the case. The crime branch has booked Kamat under several sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Corruption Act for his alleged involvement in the bribery incident in which officials of Louis Berger had paid a hefty sum to Goa ministers to win consultancy for a water augmentation and sewerage project funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency in Goa.
The Rs 1,031-crore project was approved when the Kamat government was in power (2007- 2012) and the crime branch has accused Kamat of his involvement in the bribery case and for allegedly destroying evidence in the case.
Louis Berger, one of the consultants working with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) recently also faced a probe for alleged service tax evasion and fraudulent service tax reimbursement. The probe, carried out by the tax intelligence agencies has been partially closed since recovery could not be made in only a few offices of the company. The NHAI is yet to begin its probe in the case.
Besides the ongoing investigations in India, the company also ran into trouble for allegedly engaging in corrupt practices in two World Bank-financed projects in Vietnam. Following which, the World Bank Group had debarred the company in 2015.
The company in the past has supported infrastructure development of several large transit system expansion in the country, including Mumbai Metro lines 1 and 3, the Monorail and the Hyderabad Metro. The firm is also working as a consultant for Mumbai’s Versova-Bandra Sea Link project and on the 701-km Mumbai-Nagpur Expressway project.
Soon after the controversy erupted in 2015 in the US, Vivekanand Gupta, a city-based lawyer and also a secretary with the BJP in Mumbai, had moved the magistrate court against the company. Subsequently, the Maharashtra government ordered an inquiry into infrastructure contracts allotted to the company in the state. But this inquiry has not been taken to any logical conclusion.
MMRDA has gone ahead with the contract claiming that Louis Berger is only a part of the consortium and that the work would be led by DB Engineering. “The company (Louis Berger) is not barred so far by any government agency from tendering. If that ever happens, we would ask the principal tendering company (DB Engineering) to have them replaced,” an official told The Wire.
But Gupta feels MMRDA should have “exercised due diligence” and not waited for the company to be blacklisted to take its own decisions. “Louis Berger, by its own admission, has claimed to have bribed officials and politicians in India. MMRDA should have ensured that it does not partner with a company which has pending criminal cases against it. They should have been careful,” Gupta told The Wire.
Responding to the questionnaire sent by The Wire inquiring about the company’s involvement in the bribery cases, their spokesperson has said, “Louis Berger (had) self-identified, self-investigated and voluntarily self-reported to the US Department of Justice the improper payments made in 2010 and prior by former managers who were separated from the company following the results of our early investigations. As a US company, our voluntary disclosure of these issues was first to the US Department of Justice. We fully supported their investigations, finally resulting in a settlement with the US government in July 2015.”
The company’s spokesperson also claimed to have “fully cooperated with Indian authorities in their investigations”.
—As Published in The Wire