Tamil Nadu Minister Ponmudy convicted, faces disqualification

Ponmudy’s request for an appeal to the Supreme Court will be considered on December 21; Madras High Court judge G. Jayachandran declared that the 2016 trial court verdict, in favour of the Minister and his wife, was “palpably wrong, manifestly erroneous and demonstrably unsustainable”

December 19, 2023 11:32 am | Updated December 21, 2023 12:09 pm IST - CHENNAI

Tamil Nadu Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy. File

Tamil Nadu Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy. File | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Tamil Nadu Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy suffered a major jolt on December 19, with the Madras High Court convicting him and his wife P. Visalakshi in one of the multiple disproportionate asset cases faced by them.

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The Minister now faces the threat of disqualification from membership of the State’s Legislative Asembly with immediate effect, unless his conviction is stayed or set aside. His request for an appeal to the Supreme Court will be considered on December 21.

Justice G. Jayachandran allowed an appeal preferred by the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti Corruption (DVAC) in February 2017 and set aside an April 2016 order of acquittal passed by a special court for Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) cases in Villupuram. He declared that the trial court verdict, in favour of the Minister and his wife, was “palpably wrong, manifestly erroneous and demonstrably unsustainable”.

‘Self-serving tax declaration’

The judge said that the prosecution had clearly proved that the couple were in possession of assets worth ₹1.72 crore disproportionate to their known sources of income during the check period between April 13, 2006 and May 13, 2010 when Mr. Ponmudy had served as Minister for Higher Education and Mines. Therefore, he found the Minister guilty of criminal misconduct under the PCA and his wife guilty of abetment.

Justice Jayachandran pointed out that the trial court had erred in considering the Minister and his wife as two separate entities and accepting the income tax returns filed by her after the registration of the disproportionate assets case as its sole ground to acquit both of them. He stated that the trial court’s decison to accept the self-serving tax declaration was patently erroneous and contrary to the evidence on record.

“Whether the spouse of a public servant should be treated as a separate entity or as a part and parcel of the public servant would depend upon the facts of each case. In the present case, even if effective business was done by the firms in the names of the spouse, the evidence indicates that she was only a name lender for the operations done by the public servant,” the judge observed.

He added: “Just because a person has separate income tax accounts and some business, segregating the accounts and properties of the person who has aided the public servant to hold his ill-gotten property will lead to miscarriage of justice... A miscarriage of justice which may arise from acquittal of the guilty is no less than from the conviction of an innocent.”

Hearing before sentencing on Thursday

After pronouncing his verdict, Justice Jayachandran directed the two convicts to be present in the court on Thursday, December 21, to give them an opportunity for a hearing, as required under Section 235(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, before taking a call on the punishment to be imposed on them. He directed the Registry to issue notices to them for their appearance.

When senior counsel N.R. Elango, representing Mr. Ponmudy, sought the leave of the High Court to appeal to the Supreme Court, the judge said that the request would be considered on Thursday.

Facing disqualification as MLA

According to Section 8(1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, a legislator convicted of an offence under the PCA should be disqualified for a period of six years, from the date of conviction, if the punishment is limited to a fine. However, if a legislator is sentenced to any term of imprisonment under the PCA, then he or she should be disqualified from the date of conviction till the entire period of imprisonment and also for a further period of six years from the date of release, the Act says. The disqualification can be avoided only if the conviction, and not just the sentence, gets stayed or set aside.

Apart from the present case, the Minister and his wife face yet another disproportionate assets case related to wealth allegedly amassed during his tenure as Transport Minister between 1996 and 2001. They were acquitted from that case on June 23 this year. However, Justice N. Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court took up a suomotu revision against the acquittal on August 10, and it is pending adjudication.

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