Highlighting that the Jayalalithaa disporportionate assets case demonstrates a "deep-rooted conspiratorial design" to amass vast riches and hold them through shell entities, the Supreme Court on Tuesday indicted former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa posthumously and her three co-accused, including V.K. Sasikala, of hatching one criminal conspiracy after other at Poes Garden to launder the ill-gotten wealth of Jayalalithaa for purchasing huge properties in the names of "masked fronts."
The Supreme Court said Jayalalithaa did not accommodate Sasikala at Poes Garden out of some "philanthropic urge" but with cold-blooded calculation to keep herself secure from any legal complications, which may arise from their criminal activities.
"We have analysed the evidence adduced by the parties and we come to the conclusion that A 1 to A 4 (Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran) entered into a conspiracy, and in furtherance of the same, A1 (Jayalalithaa), who was a public servant at the relevant time, had come into possession of assets disproportionate to her known sources of income during the check period (1991-96) and had got the same disbursed in the names of A2 to A4 and the firms and the companies involved to hold this on her behalf with a masked front," a Bench of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy concluded.
The Supreme Court concludes that in 1991, the assets of the accused were valued at Rs. 2.01 crore. By 1996, the accused were worth a whopping Rs. 66.44 crore.
"Attendant facts and circumstances encountered in this case demonstrate a deep-rooted conspiratorial design to amass vast assets without any compunction and hold the same through shell entities to cover up the sinister trail of such illicit acquisitions and deceived and delude the process of law," Justice Roy wrote in a separate concurring judgment, expressing "deep concern about the escalating corruption in the society."
Justice Roy said the case was "startling" in the way corruption was carried out by the accused persons with sheer impunity.
Restoring "in toto" the trial court's September 2014 conviction of Sasikala, Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran, the court said the appeals against Jayalalithaa stood abated with her death on December 5, 2016. The other three accused have been ordered to surrender forthwith.
The trial court had in 2014 sentenced the trio to four years imprisonment each and Rs. 10 crore fine each for abetting corruption and criminal misconduct by a public servant under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Indian Penal Code.
Jayalalithaa was also sentenced to four years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 100 crore for corruption.
The abatement of charges however does not rub off the smear of ignominy the Supreme Court piled on Jayalalithaa's political legacy in its 570-page judgment.
Court reasons out why the accused were guilty
It accused Jayalalithaa as a mastermind who misused her public office, who "masked banking exchanges", who acquired "vast tracts of land" for pittances and conspired with her co-accused at Poes Garden only to later "feign ignorance" about any crime committed.
The Supreme Court methodically gave reasons why all four accused were guilty of criminal conspiracy.
One, the fact that Jayalalithaa had executed a General Power of Attorney (GPA) in favour of Sasikala in respect of Jaya Publications. This was done, the court said, for Jayalalithaa to maintain a respectable distance from inflow and outflow of money meant for property acquisitions.
The court said Jayalalithaa "knew fully well that Sasikala would be dealing with her funds credited to her account in Jaya Publications".
Two, the court pointed out that the next proof of conspiracy was the speed and manner in which firms were created by the accused persons.
"It has come in evidence that 10 firms were constituted in a single day. A2 and A3 started independent concerns and apart from buying properties, no other business activity was undertaken by them," the Supreme Court noted.
The court concluded that these shell entities were mere extensions of Namadhu MGR and Jaya Publications and they owed their existence to Jayalalithaa and Sasikala. All the business they did was buy property.
Further, the court said there was no use of Jayalalithaa pretending that she was not aware of the activities of Sasikala and the two others in her own residence, Poes Garden.
"They were residing with A1 without any blood relation among them," Justice Ghose, who wrote the main judgment, observed.
"Constitution of firms and acquisition of large tracts of land out of the funds provided by A1 indicate that all the accused congregated at Poes Garden neither for social living nor A1 allowed them free accommodation out of humanitarian concern," Justice Ghose wrote.
"Rather facts and circumstances proved in evidence undoubtedly point out that A2 to A4 were accommodated in the house of A1 pursuant to the criminal conspiracy hatched by then to hold the assets of A1," the court held.
Lauds Special Judge John Michael Cunha
The Supreme Court lauded Special Judge John Michael Cunha for his "investigative approach and exhaustive research regarding every piece of evidence in the case". On the other hand, the Supreme Court held that Justice C.R. Kumaraswamy in the Karnataka High Court did not even bother to "appraise the evidence available" and stuck to whatever the income tax authorities found in favour of the accused persons.
The Supreme Court pooh-poohed defence contentions raised by Jayalalithaa and her co-accused that they got an unfair trial as mere cavil.
"The trial court was sensitive, vigilant and judicious in its appraisal of the evidence in this case," the Supreme Court observed.
As examples of the trial court's reasonableness in appreciating the evidence, the Supreme Court pointed how Judge Cunha had excluded a sum of Rs. 32 lakh the prosecution had pinned on the accused for purchase of sarees. It highlighted that despite prosecution's objections, the trial court had reduced the value of gold and diamonds which came under scanner to Rs. 2 crore. It had toned down Sudhakaran's wedding expenses by over 50 per cent of what the prosecution had cited. Further, the trial court had discounted the value of constructions by depreciating it by 20 per cent.
The Supreme Court dismissed the High Court finding that the percentage of disproportionate assets were only 8.12 per cent of the known income of the accused.
"In our opinion the percentage of disproportionate assets as 8.12 percent as computed by the High Court is based on completely wrong reading of the evidence on record compounded by incorrect arithmetical calculations," Justice Ghose held.
Anyway, the court said it was "inessential" to delve deep into this aspect considering the "pregnant evidence on record, unassailably proving the disproportionateness of the assets as contemplated in Section 13 (1) (e) of the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1988".
On the legal point whether Sasikala and the two others could be punished for corruption after the death of Jayalalithaa, the sole public servant in the case, the Supreme Court referred to its 2014 judgment in State through CBI versus Jitender Kumar Singh, which held that the death of a public servant does not extinguish the corruption case against the other private accused.
On the second legal question on how private citizens like Sasikala can be prosecuted for public corruption, the Supreme Court referred to Judge Cunha's conclusion.
"The trial court correctly held in this matter that private individuals can be prosecuted on the ground that they had abetted the act of criminal misconduct falling under Section 13 (1) (e) of the 1988 Act," the Supreme Court said.