Sleuths find SBI Caps, Ambit guilty of Kingfisher loan ‘fraud’, seek CBI probe against officials

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The Serious Fraud Investigation Office has found top officials at state-backed SBI Capital Markets and private firm Ambit guilty of helping the erstwhile Kingfisher airlines defraud lenders, the agency’s probe report accessed by HT said. SBI Caps did not respond to HT’s request for comment while Ambit denied any wrong doing.

Kingfisher, once India’s second-biggest airline, stopped flying five years ago for want of cash, leaving its creditors, mostly state-backed banks, staring at nearly Rs 9000 crore in bad debts. Banks have also sought to have its flamboyant promoter Vijay Mallya, who moved to London last year, declared a “wilful defaulter”.

At least one anti-corruption court has named him a proclaimed offender in India, which is seeking his extradition.

The SFIO began investigating Kingfisher for alleged financial irregularities in 2015. In its report, the agency has found Mallya, Kingfisher’s former chief financial officer A Raghunathan and other board members of the UB Group such as AK Ravi Nedungadi guilty of corporate mismanagement and financial irregularities.

It also brought charges of corporate fraud and violation of the companies act against Supratim Sarkar, executive vice president of SBI Caps, Ashok Wadhwa, managing director of Ambit Corporate Finance Pvt Ltd and two former valuers of Grant Thornton LLP.

The SFIO report also names as suspect former chiefs of the State Bank of India, Bank of Baroda, Bank of India and IDBI for granting short-term loans to Kingfisher between 2009 and 2010 and for sanctioning a debt recast package.

“The then chiefs of IDBI and SBI, in total disregard to judicious banking prudence and fair banking risk, went out of the way to sanction loans of Rs 900 crore and Rs500 crore respectively,” the report said.

But as the SFIO deals only with violations of the companies act, it has recommended that prosecuting agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and Central Vigilance Commission — can press corruption charges under the Indian Penal Code — be brought in to examine the role of and build cases against bank and government officials. Top sources in the government said that the SFIO will soon file cases against the accused.

SBI Caps’ Sarkar, the report alleged, “fraudulently induced banks to convert part of debt into preference shares by deceptive projects”. His debt recast plan for Kingfisher did not include inputs from any aviation expert, it said.

The report brought four charges against Wadhwa, including help in creating artificial business segments for Kingfisher and conspired in the company’s wrong valuation during the acquisition of Air Deccan in 2007.

Wadhwa’s Ambit, the report also alleged, “prepared inflated business plan and financial projection for SBI Caps for preparing information memorandum for debt recast package of Kingfisher.”

HT’s request for comment from SBI Caps over phone and email remained unanswered.

When contacted for his reaction, Wadhwa put HT in touch with his chief operating officer, who denied any wrong doing.

“In 2007-08, Ambit Corporate Finance Pte Limited provided Investment Banking advisory services related to merger of Kingfisher Airline Limited with Deccan Aviation Limited. Our scope of services specifically excluded issuance of any valuation report,” Gautam Gupte, COO of Ambit, wrote to HT.

The report also held two former valuers at Grant Thornton liable for their inflated brand valuation of Kingfisher at Rs4111 crore in March 2010. It did not hold the company responsible.

Though not named as accused, the probe report raised questions about the role of former bureaucrats at the finance ministry in “pressuring” public sector banks to offer more loans to Kingfisher, despite its failing financial health.

“A set of officials of the then banking division of the ministry of finance came to the rescue of Vijay Mallya… Pliable top management of public sector banks succumbed to the pressure,” it said.

Such pressure on state-backed banks for loans for Kingfisher continued between 2008 and 2011 when the airline’s debt was recast on the basis of Sarkar’s alleged fraudulent assessment, the report said.

The report also pointed to severe corporate governance lapses in Kingfisher. It questioned the role of independent directors on its board.