by Nirmala Kannangara
It is an open secret how former first citizen Mahinda Rajapaksa, his off springs and siblings, while ‘serving’ for the motherland, looted out its wealth.
This newspaper has repeatedly exposed many financial frauds committed by the Rajapaksa’s and their kith and kin amounting into billions of rupees and this time it is all about Jaliya Wickramasuriya, cousin of Kurunegala District MP, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Wickramasuriya was arrested at the Bandaranaike International Airport on Thursday, November 17 by the officers of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) for misappropriation of public funds while serving as the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States of America (USA) between 2008 and 2013.
Wickramasuriya was to leave Sri Lankan shores after a holiday when he was arrested at the airport on Thursday morning. “After the regime changed in 2015, we received many complaints against Wickramasuriya for misappropriation of state funds. We conducted an investigation and gathered all information into the allegations secretly. As we knew that he was to leave on Thursday, we got a court order on Wednesday to arrest him. He was arrested while he was going through the immigration,” sources from the FCID told The Sunday Leader.
Soon after coming into power, Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Wickramasuriya, who was residing in USA engaging in tea export business to the Sri Lankan mission in Los Angeles, in 2005 as the Consular General. After three years, in 2008, he was appointed as the Sri Lankan ambassador to US. Wickramasuriya was also accused of engaging in his personal business whilst working as the Ambassador in Washington DC.
According to FCID sources, Wickramasuriya had requested the Sri Lankan government US $ 6.6 million (approximately Rs. 989 million as per the present exchange rate) to purchase a building to house the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington.
“This money had been sent to the Sri Lankan Embassy account and although Wickramasuriya had withdrawn US $ 6.6 million in order to purchase the building, it was revealed that the building had cost the country only US $ 6.25 million . The remaining money US $ 0.35 million (approximately Rs. 52 million as per the present exchange rate) had been siphoned to a bank account in Sri Lanka,” sources who wished to remain anonymous said.
According to the sources, although Wickramasuriya claimed that he spent all the money sent from Sri Lanka to purchase the building in Washington, in the transfer deed it states that the property was sold for US $ 6.25 million but not for US $ 6.6 million as stated by Wickramasuriya.
According to the transfer document of the said building at 3025, Whiteheaven Street, Washington, DC 20008, which The Sunday Leader is in possession, the cost was US $ 6.25 million and it is a 6,135 square feet building and consists of seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms. The ownership of this building had been changed from Boadman, Samuel E & M Diane to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka on January 16, 2013. This building had been built in 1951 and the land value of the property was US $1.924 million.
“As we have received all the supportive documents with regard to this transaction. We conducted the investigation in the most secret manner. Had anyone knew that we were conducting an investigation into this deal, Wickramasuriya would not have visited Sri Lanka. When we came to know that the suspect had come to the country and that he was to leave on Thursday November 17, we immediately got a court order to arrest him. Without knowing that he will be arrested, Wickramasuriya was going through the immigration at the airport. The FCID arrested and brought him to Colombo for questioning for the first time,” sources claimed.
The sources further said as to how the suspect divulged to the investigators how the high ranking figures in the previous regime protected him and prevented any legal action against him for misappropriation of state funds.
“The investigators have questioned him from Thursday morning till late evening and produced him in courts on Friday where he was remanded till December 2 by Colombo Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne. When questioned, he had said how part of that money was given to a certain ‘big wig’ of the previous regime,” sources added.
“This suspect had stated that he did not swindle state money but was given a commission by the seller after the transaction was made. How can he say that once he paid US $ 6.6 million to the seller, he was given a commission? If a commission was paid by the seller, that money should go to the purchaser – the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, but not to Jaliya Wickramasuriya.
The commission is paid only after the full payment is made. If Wickramasuriya claims that he paid US $ 6.6 million then the transfer deed document should show that amount. Wickramasuriya was not a broker but was only an employee of the Sri Lankan Government. This suspect had got around with the Embassy Accountant and had done the fraud,” sources said.
It is learnt how the US Government unearthed how Wickramasuriya evaded paying taxes for the looted money through the Embassy Accountant which led the relavant department in the US to start an investigation.
“From the investigations, it came to light how Wickramasuriya had violated the US laws by not declaring his money and evaded paying the taxes. As it was a serious offence, the US Government had requested the Sri Lankan Government to re-call the Ambassador.
Hence Wickramasuriya was called back immediately and sent career diplomat Asela Weerakoon as the US Ambassador temporarily for a shorter period till a permanent replacement was made,” sources added.
He further said as to how the Rajapaksa government was tight lipped about this and once again posted Wickramasuriya as the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Canada.
“US and Canada has strong links with regard to the Sri Lankan politicians and the citizens who are accused of fraud. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent the credential details to the Canadian Government of the newly appointed Sri Lankan Ambassador, the Canadian Government refused to accept his posting to their country because Wickramasuriya had committed a serious financial offence to the US Government,” sources claimed.
According to the sources, the allegation for swindling this money was first levelled against an officer attached to the Embassy in Washington. “The allegation for committing this fraud was first levelled against the Accountant at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington DC. Later this Accountant spilled the beans in order to defend himself as plans were afoot to take action against this officer,” sources said.
“Although for Rajapaksa, Wickramasuriya’s involvement in swindling public money was not an issue and appointed the cousin brother once again to another foreign mission, for US and Canada, Wickramasuriya was a fraudster and did not want to allow him to serve in those countries as an Ambassador,” sources claimed.
Meanwhile, sources further said as to how Wickramasuriya is alleged to have been involved in certain other misdeeds whilst serving as the Ambassador in Washington DC. Wickramasuriya is also accused of obtaining the service of Public Relation (PR) companies to draft press releases, his speeches and propaganda documents.
“This has happened not only in the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washinton DC but many Sri Lankan missions in other countries as well. But with regard to the US Embassy, millions of rupees had been paid by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka for US PR companies for the services they had done. Some of these expensive PR companies have given sub contracts to other PR companies as well. When the embassy staff could draft the press releases, Ambassador’s speeches and propaganda documents, what made Wickramasuriya to hire these expensive PR companies spending Sri Lankan money lavishly?” sources said.
According to the sources, although Wickramasuriya after his appointment to the Sri Lankan mission in US said that he had given up his commercial interests, he was accused of using embassy resources to promote his business.
“It is alleged that Wickramasuriya had even got the embassy staff to do his business work. Against this allegation we have to conduct further investigations as he was not appointed as the Ambassador to engage in his private businesses but to attend to matters pertaining to Sri Lanka,” sources claimed.