Interview

I am victim of ‘political conspiracy’, says alleged VVIP chopper deal middleman Michel

New Delhi: A file photo of AgustaWestland (AW101) VVIP Airforce Helicopter. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on Tuesday slammed the Defence Ministry and Air Force for

New Delhi: A file photo of AgustaWestland (AW101) VVIP Airforce Helicopter. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on Tuesday slammed the Defence Ministry and Air Force for "several instances" of deviation from rules in the procurement of VVIP choppers in the multi-crore AgustaWestland deal. PTI Photo (PTI8_13_2013_000221B)  

'The PM of a country as large as India may not be able to go into detail on any issue, and I felt he was being misled.'

Offering himself up for interrogation by Indian agencies CBI and ED who are investigating the Rs. 3,565 Cr VVIP Chopper deal, the alleged middleman James Christian Michel insists he is the victim of “political conspiracy”. Speaking in a rare interview to The Hindu from Dubai, where he is based, Mr. Michel says he has written to PM Modi with the offer to be questioned in the scam that has raised a storm in parliament on Tuesday.

There is an Interpol red corner notice in your name; you are named on warrants in Italy and India. In documents you have shared with us, you said you had written to PM Modi, tell us why you wrote directly to the PM?

Yes I did. I felt he was not being given the whole story, and I felt I must inform him of what was going on. The PM of a country as large as India may not be able to go into detail on any issue, and I felt he was being misled.

You’ve also said you are willing to be interrogated by Indian officials…

Yes, well I know that the only way to clear this all up is face to face, and I know that but what I am scared of is being stuck in India for years and years, which I cant afford. No state is going to pay my bills, no one else will look after my family, while I am defending myself. That’s always been the problem, and it’s the same with Italy, I could have always gone to Italy, I have all the documentation but I will not go without some assurance that I will not be arrested and held over.

So if you have an assurance that you won’t be detained, you are willing to come here?

Oh yes, absolutely. I have all the documentation, I think I can demonstrate there has been no wrongdoing, certainly on my side, and I have said this many times.

Did you receive a reply from the Prime Minister’s office?

No, none whatsoever. It’s been ignored.

So when you didn’t receive a reply, have you made your offer at the local Indian consulate or Embassy in the UAE, where you are now?

Well, they have been in contact with me. I was rung about two weeks ago to ask if I was around, and they called me on my Dubai phone, and I said yes, I am around, and they asked me if I had applied for a visa, and I said no I haven’t. And that was the last I heard from them.

Who called you?

I think it was the immigration secretary/officer. I didn’t ask his name. I was so surprised, I didn’t ask. I am sure they were checking up on me and whether I was indeed in Dubai.

India and the UAE do have a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, are you worried about being extradited by the UAE, even if you don’t intend to travel here?

Yes, yes of course. But I am not going to go and hide. I am here in Dubai defending my position with the authorities. And I think the courts have so far agreed as well that I am not guilty. So yes I am vulnerable but I am not going to run away and hide.

To the contrary, when you say that the courts in Italy have proven your innocence, isn’t it a fact that they have transcripts of conversations that show you were party to the deal?

Well, the intercepts were obtuse about me being involved and the documents used again are clearly forged. It’s not even my handwriting, and then there were affidavits proving I wasn’t even present at the meetings. This is not evidence that will stand up in courts.

You are named on the warrant as well?

I’m named everywhere because in Italy they believe that politically I could bring down the Northern league, so for the Italians it is the opportunity of destroying the opposition party. And in India, the opportunity of maybe having some evidence against the Gandhis is tremendously tempting. This is why my name is everywhere.

Do you know the Gandhi family?

No, this is something I am not terribly proud of; my father and I never really get on. We ended up suing each other. And he never let me into that side of his life (relations with the Gandhis). He knew many many politicians, he had friends in the Indian opposition, he knew many leaders in South Africa, but it had nothing to do with me. My one saving grace is that I have never ever met one single Gandhi, ever in my life.

You are absolutely sure you have never met any member of the Gandhi family? Despite visiting India so many times, living here, knowing so many people in government?

Yes, I know it sounds impossible, but never once, not at a hotel or a party. It is my greatest fortune that I have never met (a Gandhi). If I had met them you could say well you must have discussed something. Well I haven’t met them. Not a phone call, a letter, a message, a mention of me in a memo. Nothing.

But you were in touch with the UPA government at the time?

Well not really, there were retired service people whom I consulted for information and their expertise, but that’s as far as I ever got. All of my contracts with them have been sent to India and looked into. There has been no wrongdoing.

Could you name the retired personnel?

Well they have been named in your newspapers. I don’t want to get anyone else into trouble. Because these are honest gentleman who have been put through terrible times for having done nothing wrong at all. The CBI has been over all of them. If there had been any wrongdoing there it would have been in the court papers against me.

Now you have made what seems like a far fetched claim, when you said that in September 2015, PM Modi had a brush-by, unscheduled meeting with PM Renzi at the United Nations. Tell us about that.

I was in negotiation with Finmeccanica-Agusta Westland last year, sorting out issues that were in no way related to the VVIP chopper deal. Things like storage of equipment they owed me money for. I took them to court, and we settled the first amount I was claiming. We were in the process of settling the second amount, when suddenly their lawyers said, we’ve agreed to the figure, but we are pulling out. They were not going to talk anymore to me. That was August-September 2015. We were all surprised. So I asked my legal team to find out and they said, there was some meeting in New York. So then I set everyone I know on to finding out what happened in New York, and I was told by three separate sources that there was a brush-by meeting between the Indian and Italian PMs at the UN, that of course the most important issue came up, that of the Italian marines case, and help was offered by the Indian Prime Minister to settle that case, if some evidence was found implicating the Gandhis in the VVIP deal. And it seemed to have been made clear that I was accused of being a conduit. I felt this was going too far.

Did that meeting take place? What proof do you have?

The question of whether that meeting took place is easily answered. Not only did it take place, it went on so long, they had to reschedule other meetings. The mistake was made during the rescheduling as diplomats explained that because the meeting with the Italian PM had gone on so long, they had to change the timings. And if there was a meeting, it was clear what would be discussed.

The MEA has denied a meeting took place. We have spoken to several officers who were part of the delegation and mission at the UN, and they were absolutely clear that they knew nothing of it, and that the PM couldn’t just go meet a leader without any of them knowing.

When you say they deny, have they put that in writing? Is the Indian MEA willing to go all the way in denying this? Everyone in diplomatic circles knows about it.

The government has said the claim is so false they refuse to comment on it….

That’s a very good way of not answering the questions

But surely a record of the meeting would be available somewhere, perhaps in the Italian PM’s office?

I am sure it will be. If you think about it, the most important issue blocking ties between India and Italy are these two marines, and I am sure there will be some record of such an important meeting.

Which meeting, according to your sources, was rescheduled?

What I heard was that there were a number of meetings with “European leaders”, is what they said which had to be reorganized because of the over-run. An enormous spotlight came on the meeting because of the rescheduling, you see.

What date did this meeting happen?

It was either the 24th or 25th of September.

Has anyone from the Italian government approached you about this offer?

Well that’s just it, the public prosecutor did offer me a plea bargain with no payment, no time in jail, but I didn’t want to confess to any allegations of wrongdoing because they are just not true.

Did the prosecutor prompt you that they wanted you to give information on the Gandhis?

No. The Italian prosecutor was totally focused on how I could incriminate the Northern League. That’s where the trouble starts. What could have been a simple case of proving whether bribes had been paid or not has turned into the political opportunity. In Italy, they are all jumping about the Northern League, they have no interest in India.

So no one asked you about the Gandhis?

No.

Do you think you are then a victim of political rivalries?

I seem to have gotten caught in not one but two political rivalries. And it came at a time when elections were happening in both places. You remember Berlusconi was already in trouble, and the Renzi government was trying to take power, so it was convenient politically, but not much else.

That isn't quite correct. The Milan court has recently reversed the lower court decision and held Mr. Orsi and two others guilty.

They found him guilty of over invoicing connected to a company in Tunisia. And that is not something I am involved with fully. But the judgment clearly says what they have been held guilty of.

Is it surprising that this case is now linked to the case of the Marines?

See that’s the bad advice I was speaking of that has been given to PM Modi. These two cases should never have been linked, and I don’t know why he did. Linking these two cases will make the problem into a much bigger one.

Well then officials would point out, if there had been a meeting and these two had been linked, would we not have seen some results by now?

I can answer that. It’s a sign of desperation on both sides. If the international court rules that the marines have to be given to Italy, then India will be furious. If the court says they have to be in India, then all of Europe will be furious. So this meeting was a last ditch effort to try and find a resolution before the court rules. I don’t see any solution to this problem. I’m sure the Indian government now wished they had not tried to link the two cases. Especially at a place like the UN, where so many people might have seen them.

Yet you won’t name even one official who may have been present when the two PMs met?

I have a bad experience in naming people, and so I would rather not.

You haven’t answered why no deal was made then?

Because no deal can be made. I am not sure how the Italian PM responded to the offer, but it’s a very high price to ask for. It’s a legal issue and the two courts have no common ground. So I can imagine, this would have been a sign a desperation.

Are you sure no money was paid to the Gandhis?

I am absolutely sure

How can you know for sure?

Because I was there. I am quite sure the over invoicing money went back to Italy. You can never say with 100% surety. But it would have been hard to hide such a substantive amount, especially given how aggressive the prosecution was.

In India, this case has the greatest parallels to the Bofors case. How do you react to the idea that you are seen as a figure somewhat like Quattrocchi?

Well firstly, I am not like him. If I were Italian like him they would not extradite me to India or anywhere. In the UAE however, they have extradited 14-15 people in the last few years. I am not a Quattrocchi, or I wouldn’t be sitting here, vulnerable and worrying about my future. If I was so comfortable today, I wouldn’t be giving you an interview. I wouldn’t have to defend myself. I could sit here and no one could touch me. But I have to bring out the truth. Quattrochchi never had to do this.

You said the Indian embassy official called you two weeks ago. Is that the first time an Indian official has attempted to contact you since the case broke?

Oh yes, absolutely this is the first time ever. It was a strange call, asking me if I had applied for a visa. And they said are you in the UAE? I said yes, and he said are you planning to travel? I said no. It was a check on me, not sure what they had in mind though. He didn’t go into details and I didn’t ask. It proves they no exactly where I am and what my number is.

Many would say, why not instead come to India face the questions, go through the legal process.

Well you mentioned the Bofors case. People like Amitabh Bachchan were cleared after 25 years, and I am a little bit worried that will be my fate. It could ruin a big part of my life and then they would only find that I am not guilty. Anybody would agree with me that that’s not really fair. There is one point I want to make. Even though Mr. Orsi has been found guilty of over invoicing and accused of bribery, it is strange that the company itself has made no attempt to retrieve the money from him or Mr. Hashke. Yet to me they want 10 million dollars back. That shows you that the company is not interested in real accountability.

In the intercepts there is a mention of Sudhir Chaudhury…was he involved with Finnmeccanica.

Well we all knew he was a good friend of the chairman. But we knew that Agusta Westland and Mr. Orsi would have nothing to do with him. So he wasn’t involved when the helicopter deal happened.

Also, if as you claim, PM Modi made such an offer to PM Renzi, is there any indication he made a similar offer to PM Cameron, given that Westland was a UK company, and the PM went to London in November last year?

Well there isn’t. I was as you can imagine quite worried about that for myself….but there is no indication it came up. He made no demand there for information. I think you know that I have many connections there still, my brother in law was an equerry to the Queen, and leader of the Labour party at one point in the House of Lords. If it had come up during PM Modi’s visit, I would have known.

So to sum it up, now, you are willing to be questioned by Indian authorities, so long as you have an assurance you won’t be arrested?

I think this is the only way to settle this, a direct questioning. I wish the CBI or ED would come here. Because I can be helpful with documentation. Remember this isn’t just about clearing my good name, but India’s good name .Bureaucrats were not involved, politicians were not involved. It was the best helicopter and everyone knows it. It was the right choice.

What sort of assurance would satisfy you then?

Something in writing of course. If I have that I could come there, no problem at all. That way I can explain all the documents they have. Including the question of heights. I found that long before my time there, in 2004, they had confirmed that the helicopter with a minor modification could have achieved 6000m. That destroys the case fundamentally. I would be able to explain that in person.

This article has been corrected for a factual error.

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Printable version | May 23, 2020 1:07:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/interview-with-james-christian-michel-alleged-middleman-in-vvip-chopper-deal/article14262539.ece

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