The minister denies allegation
Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain and senior representatives of his family-owned company SAHCO, sought to coerce multiple companies into using SAHCO as a paid “silent agent” for getting permission to bid for the main bridge contract of Padma Multipurpose Bridge project.
Companies failing to cooperate were threatened with retaliation, revealed an investigation report by the Integrity Vice-presidency (INT) of World Bank Group.
The project’s main bridge contract, estimated to cost approximately US$1.2 billion, includes construction of the main bridge, road viaducts, approach roads, toll plazas, and bridge end facilities. The total project cost is $2.9 billion.
Abul Hossain however categorically denied the allegation to The Daily Star last night.
WB’s Integrity Vice-president Leonard F McCarthy, on September 21, handed over a highly confidential letter and INT’s investigation report regarding corruption in the Padma bridge project to Finance Minister AMA Muhith in Washington.
INT interviewed representatives of multiple companies. Because these witnesses feared physical and economic reprisal, they only spoke to INT on the basis of confidentiality, said the report.
“One confidential witness told INT that the company s/he worked for received a visit from an individual claiming to work for SAHCO and who said he was taking instructions directly from Minister Hossain. According to this confidential witness, the SAHCO representative said that, in exchange for a specified percentage of the contract value, Minister Hossain would help the company in the PQ [pre-qualifying] process for the Padma Main Bridge Contract. The confidential witness subsequently identified the person from SAHCO in a photograph, stating that this was the individual who had contacted them,” the report read.
Another source told INT that when a company refused to employ SAHCO as a “silent agent”, the minister threatened the company with “retaliation”.
INT met with a representative of that company who was in a position to have first-hand knowledge of the alleged coercion and threatened retaliation. “This confidential witness expressed reluctance to discuss the matter due to fear of possible adverse employment action and retaliation on the part of Minister Hossain — who s/he described as very powerful. Ultimately, this confidential witness confirmed what the source had told INT,” the report added.
“The statements of those confidential witnesses are consistent with similar, but distinct, allegations made to INT by 11 other confidential witnesses. (Almost all of the witnesses who spoke with INT requested confidentiality out of concern for their personal safety and/or financial well-being.),” the report went on.
INT spoke with over a dozen witnesses in four countries over a five-week period.
In the letter to Muhith, INT vice-president said the investigation dealt only with allegations related to the procurement of the main bridge contract, and does not relate to the construction supervision consultant (CSC) contract that is the subject of an investigation being conducted by the Canadian authorities.
About the report the letter said, “The Report should not be used by your government as evidence in any administrative, criminal, or civil proceedings under Bangladesh law. Your investigative authorities should use the Report only for their own reference when conducting their investigations and should not cite or refer to them in any investigation reports. Moreover, this Report should not be cited in any administrative, civil, or criminal proceedings undertaken by your government.”
But it added, “It is INT’s view that the Ministry of Finance should use this Report as a basis for undertaking its own investigation into the allegations in order to determine whether any laws of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh have been violated by the subject of the investigation.”
The letter emphasised on strict confidentiality of the investigation report, and added that WB is prepared to assist the Bangladesh government with information if it moves to launch its own investigation. WB also expressed its eagerness to be apprised of any follow-up action taken by the Bangladesh government regarding the matter.
A foot note of the report said, “According to several witnesses and local press articles, Mr Hossain resigned from SAHCO after he became a Minister. Since then, a new Managing Director was appointed, but SAHCO’s website indicates that Mr Hossain’s wife and two daughters are still members of SAHCO’s Board of Directors.”
ABUL HOSSAIN’S REBUTTAL
Speaking to The Daily Star over the telephone last night, Abul Hossain said, “The world bank prepared a report based on hunches that were turned into elements for an investigation.”
Some foreign companies and their local agents, who had been rejected by the technical evaluation committee, made up stories and fed the World Bank, so the project is delayed and a scope for re-tender is created, he said.
“Usually the technical evaluation committee is formed with departmental officials, but for the sake of transparency I formed the committee with honest and reputed experts,” he said.
About SAHCO he said, the company is not new, it has been around for a while and has been involved in business with much reputation. “Since my resignation from the post of the managing director of the company following my appointment as a minister, SAHCO has been run by a competent board of directors and officials,” he said.
“Using the fact that I was the chief of that company once, some other companies who could not pre-qualify for the Padma bridge project, are fabricating stories to make me controversial,” Abul alleged.
-With The Daily Star input