The ongoing protest campaign in the wake of eruption of violence at Mirihana underlines the responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to address issues – economic and political at hand. Successive governments have encouraged waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanaged the national economy. The bottom line is the current balance of payments crisis, the cumulative effect of mismanagement and corruption at every level over the years and exacerbated by two colossal blunders — the doing away with key taxes at the beginning of President Rajapaksa’s term, which deprived government coffers several hundred billion rupees per year and the abrupt decision by him to halt chemical fertiliser imports. But the culpability for the situation must be borne by the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. There is more than a grain of truth in what big mouth Ranjan has been saying. Then of course there was a worldwide calamity in the form of the pandemic and some foolish measures taken not only here but worldwide like turning to the printing press for easy cash is now haunting almost the entire world.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Political appointee Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya, 61, of Arlington, Virginia, served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States and Mexico from July 2008 to May 2014. Wickramasuriya, on April fool’s Day, 2022, pleaded guilty to diverting and attempting to embezzle $332,027.35 from his employer, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The attempt had been made when the GoSL acquired a new embassy building in Washington D.C. in 2013.
Having repeatedly denied his involvement, in spite of returning the stolen money, Wickramasuriya, a cousin of the ruling Rajapkasas, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court in Washington DC (District of Columbia) to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The charge carries a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison and potential financial penalties.
Judge Tanya S. Chutkan is scheduled to sentence Wickramasuriya on July 20, 2022.
Wartime Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama didn’t mince his words when he declared Wickramasuriya’s conduct as nothing but a disgrace, though the then Minister’s conduct, while in office, was anything but stellar, especially when it came to matters relating to his family, personal and political life. Bogollagama, who handled the matters relating to the war effort well, said that Wickramasuriya caused irreparable damage to the Foreign Service and humiliated the country.
Interesting, Bogollagama, who succeeded Mangala Samaraweera following a dispute that led to the Matara MP’s sacking, had been the Minister in charge of foreign affairs at the time the US-based Wickramasuriya received the ambassadorial post at the behest of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Wickramasuriya succeeded top career diplomat Bernard Goonatilleke in Washington.
The Parliamentary High Post Committee (PHPC), chaired by the Speaker, cleared Wickramasuriya’s appointment pronto. In fact, PHPC over the years cleared almost all appointments recommended by successive governments. At the time Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in Nov 2005, the US-based Wickramasuriya had been engaged in the tea export business and was first appointed the Consul General in Los Angeles, California.
Bogollagama lost at the April 2010 parliamentary election. Prof. G.L.Peiris took over the Foreign Ministry as External Affairs Minister but no change was made in Washington for obvious reasons. The then Monitoring MP of the Foreign Ministry Sajin Vass Gunawardena wielded immense power over the ministry. That was the time R. Duminda Silva functioned as the Monitoring MP of the Defence Ministry. In the absence of proper supervision at all levels, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The fraud perpetrated by the Ambassador while purchasing a new building for the Sri Lankan Embassy, in Washington, should be examined in that context.
The US compelled Sri Lanka to recall Wickramasuriya in July 2014 following investigations conducted by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about six months before Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential election. Career FS officer Asela Weerakoon took over the mission, temporarily, before another FS senior Prasad Kariyawasam moved in. Before inquiring into the tax fraud further, it would be pertinent to discuss how Wickramasuriya held such a diplomatic appointment for seven years. Wickramasuriya was on a contract.
FS officers serve a particular mission for a period of three years whereas retired FS officers and political appointees receive contracts for two to three years. But, Wickramasuriya, having served as Consul General in Los Angeles, received the topmost diplomatic appointment and held it until the US exposed him.
The yahapalana administration waived the diplomatic immunity granted to Wickramasuriya.
The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, in a statement dated April 01, 2022, based on documents furnished to the court, declared from in or around late 2012 through November 2013, Wickramasuriya devised a scheme to defraud the GoSL during its 2013 purchase of a new Embassy building in Washington, D.C. by inflating the price of the real estate transaction by $332,027 and, at closing, diverted those funds from the government to two companies which had no role in the real estate transaction. After the January 2013 closing, Wickramasuriya directed these payments to the two companies. Later in the same year, Wickramasuriya redirected an equal amount of funds back to government accounts, leaving the Sri Lankan government with no loss.
From Wyoming Avenue to Whitehaven
Why did Wickramasuriya return the money? The man in Washington had no option but to do so after President Mahinda Rajapaksa raised the issue with him. Unfortunately, the Rajapaksa administration quite conveniently refrained from initiating action against him and Wickramasuriya was allowed to continue. Obviously, President Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t want his cousin penalised regardless of the grave offense committed while serving as Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Washington.
Did Wickramasuriya make the move to shift the Sri Lankan mission based at Wyoming Avenue, N.W, Washington DC, 20008 to 3021 Whitehaven, St. N.W., Washington DC, 20008 with specific intention of stealing money. The decision to purchase the property was made in Oct 2012 by the GoSL and the funds transferred to the HSBC Bank account in Washington DC. The Ambassador and others involved in the conspiracy devised a plan to swindle the GoSL. Having finalised the agreement to procure the new building at a cost of USD 6.25mn, the Ambassador obtained USD 6.6 mn from the GoSL. Having paid the sellers real estate company and the buyers real estate company USD 187,500.00, each, Wickramasuriya directed the title company and the closing attorney to transfer USD 332,027.35 to Embassy consultant company A (USD 82,027.35) and Sri Lankan company incorporated in Sri Lanka (USD250,000). US investigations revealed that the Embassy consultant had been a lawyer and a close associate of Wickramasuriya. The lawyer has operated Embassy consultant company A and Embassy consultant company B and in spite of no involvement in the transaction received part of the funds provided for the acquisition of the new building.
The US court was told how several attempts were made by the Title Company to carry out instructions given by Wickramasuriya after the bid to wire USD 250,000 to the Sri Lankan company on January 17, 2013 failed as a result of an intermediary bank rejecting the move. Finally, USD 250,000 has been wired to the Sri Lankan company’s Sri Lankan bank account on March 20, 2013.
US investigators exposed the sordid embezzlement carried out by the then Sri Lanka’s top envoy in the US. Although Wickramasuriya paid back the entire sum by late October 2013, the US investigated the fraud and brought the judicial proceedings to a successful conclusion.
The Foreign Ministry owed an explanation regarding the Wickramasuriya episode. When The Island raised this issue with the Foreign Ministry recently, the writer was told that the case was pending in the Fort Magistrate court. Now dismantled Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) investigated Wickramasuriya’s case after he was arrested in Nov 2016 at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).
The writer had been in touch with Wickramasuriya after he was granted bail and reported on the matter. Claims made by Wickramasuriya at the time have to be examined against the backdrop of him pleading guilty to the attempt to defraud the GoSL.
Those who served the Rajapaksa administration claimed that they were targeted for political reasons. Speaking to the writer from the US in April 2018, Wickramasuriya claimed that US authorities prevented him from leaving the US to appear in the case heard in the Fort Magistrate court.
Wickramasuriya said that he first realized restrictions placed on him when he tried to leave Atlanta for Chile late last year. “I got my boarding pass and was about to get in when Homeland Security personnel stopped me. They wanted to question me at the airport. I was taken to a room where they explained the reasons for my detention.”
Shavindra Fernando, PC, has represented Wickramasuriya, who was deprived of diplomatic immunity though he was assured of protection. Wickramasuriya said that he hadn’t been able to leave the US though he was ordered to appear in court over the alleged embezzlement of funds. The former diplomat quoted Homeland Security officers as having told him that the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) had wanted the Embassy transaction probed.
Commenting on his Nov 2016 arrest, Wickramasuriya said. “I was in Sri Lanka for two years. They never wanted to record my statement. Although I have travelled overseas about 10 times since returning from the US in May 2014, the police stopped him as he was leaving for the US in the early hours of Nov 17, 2016.”
Udayanga Weeratunga presenting his letter of credentials to Russian President Putin at the Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow
Inconsistency in GoSL reaction
Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) lawmaker Dr. Harsha de Silva pointed out the discrepancy in the US and GoSL response to the Wickramasuriya affair. The US action in respect of Wickramasuriya should be examined taking into consideration the dismissal of several dozens of cases filed against the Rajapaksas and their acolytes.
Referring to a group of lawyers mounting a protest at the Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam’s Office during the ongoing campaign demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down, Dr. de Silva said that a foreign court was able to carry out the judicial process to a successful conclusion. “How strange. All the high powered and connected crooks are found not guilty in local courts. We have a huge responsibility to do all we can to ensure the institutions are strengthened so that the corrupt are dealt without fear or favour.”
The Wickramasuriya affair has exposed the pathetic way overseas appointments are made at a time cash-strapped Sri Lanka is in the process of pruning diplomatic missions. Sri Lankan mission in Oslo is among those missions.
Successive governments have used diplomatic missions to accommodate those who served the interests of the powers that be. The incumbent dispensation is no exception. Although the appointment of non-career diplomats as heads of missions cannot be totally discontinued under any circumstances, no one can dispute the need for a balance. Over the years, diplomatic posts have been offered to various persons for a variety of reasons. There cannot be a worse example than misusing political authority in respect of diplomatic postings than former President Maithripala Sirisena offering an overseas posting to disgraced former IGP Pujith Jayasundara. Appearing before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed 2019 Easter Sunday massacres, Jayasundara claimed that the President offered him a diplomatic post if he accepted the responsibility for those multiple suicide attacks. Jayasundara also claimed that he received an assurance he would be cleared by an inquiry that was being conducted at that time.
Against the backdrop of one-time Sri Lankan head of mission found guilty by a foreign court and the verdict to be delivered on July 20, in spite of Sri Lanka’s failure to do so, the need for a fresh look at the high profile case of Imaad Shah Zuberi, a Los Angeles-based venture capitalist and political fundraiser receiving 144 months in federal prison for defrauding Sri Lanka. Zuberi was sentenced in Feb 2021.
A US court found him guilty for cheating the Sri Lankan government millions of dollars promising to rebuild the country’s image following the end of the war with the crushing victory over the LTTE. The court was told Zuberi received USD 6.5 mn in 2014 following discussions initiated during Wickramasuriya’s tenure as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington.
Zuberi operated Avenue Ventures LLC, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, and solicited foreign nationals and representatives of foreign governments with claims he could use his contacts in Washington, D.C. to change U.S. foreign policy and create business opportunities for his clients and himself.
The US moved the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against Sri Lanka in Oct 2015 after playing a significant role in the then Opposition campaign against President Mahinda Rajapaksa. No less a person than US Secretary of State John Kerry declared US funding for regime changing projects in four countries in 2014/2015, including Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The Justice Department said: “Zuberi promised to make substantial expenditures on lobbying efforts, legal expenses, and media buys, which prompted Sri Lanka to agree to pay Zuberi a total of $8.5 million over the course of six months in 2014. Days after Sri Lanka made an initial payment of $3.5 mn, Zuberi transferred $1.6 million into his personal brokerage accounts and used another $1.5 million to purchase real estate.”
In total, Sri Lanka wired $6.5 million pursuant to the contract, and Zuberi used more than $5.65 million of that money to the benefit of himself and his wife. Zuberi paid less than $850,000 to lobbyists, public relations firms and law firms, and refused to pay certain subcontractors based on false claims that Sri Lanka had not provided sufficient funds to pay invoices.”
It has to be stated that the then government spent money on such foolish attempts to lobby Washington as the country was being hounded by the West for militarily crushing the LTTE, as their experts had been repeatedly telling us over the years our security forces were incapable of achieving such a task.
The Foreign Ministry here acknowledged that payments made to Zuberi had never been investigated at any level. The ongoing protest campaign demanding the government to quit also focused on corruption during the previous Rajapaksa administration. There is no point in denying waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement caused irreparable damage to the national economy.
Sri Lanka never investigated the Wickramasuriya affair and the role played by the Sri Lankan mission in Washington in hiring Zuberi, an American of Pakistani and Indian descent. A proper investigation would have probably revealed the involvement of certain politicians and officials there in the scam perpetrated by Zuberi.
The yahapalana administration never made a genuine attempt to investigate the Wickramasuriya affair though he was arrested. However, the then government facilitated the US investigation by waiving diplomatic immunity. But, the payments made to Zuberi via the Central Bank never received the attention of the yahapalana lot.
Once the writer raised this issue with Arjuna Mahendran, the then Governor of the Central Bank, a Singaporean national who fled the country in the wake of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Treasury Bond scams handing over its report to President Maithripala Sirisena in late Dec 2017. Mahendran didn’t indicate any interest. In fact, he did nothing.
Udayanga Weeratunga, a first cousin of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, received appointment as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation. Weeratunga presented his credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow, on Nov 16, 2006, a year after Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency. Weeratunga served in Moscow till Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at the 2015 presidential election. Having enacted the dictatorial 18th Amendment to the Constitution at the onset of his second term, the war-winning President sought a third term but was defeated.
In January last year, SJB lawmaker Chaminda Wijesiri, raised concerns in Parliament regarding key diplomatic posts offered to those with political affiliations and to friends and relatives of political leaders. The MP questioned the manipulation of the whole process for the benefit of a few.
The then Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena denied MP Wijesiri’s accusations. The MEP leader who is also the Leader of the House claimed that appointments hadn’t been based on political relationships. The Foreign Ministry followed the recruitment procedure and the appointments made to the Foreign Service had to be approved by the PHPC headed by the Speaker of Parliament. Of course, both Wickramasuriya and Weeratunga had been out of Foreign Service by 2014. Whatever the accusations directed at Weeratunga, he should earn the respect of the public for helping Sri Lanka enhance its firepower with the acquisition of Ukrainian MiGs for the SLAF at the onset of the Eelam War IV. Weeratunga secured the contract for the acquisition of four MiGs and the overhaul of four other MiGs that had been in service with the Air Force. However, controversy surrounds the 2006 deals with those who never believed in Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE, causing media furore.