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October 4, 2018

The untold story of ex-DG LDA’s side!


October 4, 2018

ISLAMABAD: Allegations of massive corruption against Ahad Cheema - the former LDA DG and the high profile bureaucrat of Shahbaz Sharif’s last government in Punjab - have been making headlines in the Pakistani media for the last nine months but the accused’s side of the story remains untold as yet.

What NAB has been saying, overtly or covertly, against the bureaucrat has been shared with the masses by the media without making any serious effort to tell the people Ahad Cheema’s side of the story.

On Sept 28, last week, the NAB was reprimanded by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who while hearing a MD PSO case had asked the Bureau what it dug out against Ahad Cheem and Fawad Hasan Fawad. Although NAB did not have a convincing answer for the CJP, its Lahore Bureau the same day approved another reference of assets beyond means against Ahad.

The CJP’s remarks had encouraged the friends and the members of Ahad Cheema’s family to share their side of the story with the media, which they lament have been fed with one-sided stories during the last several months.

Cheema was arrested on Feb 21, 2018 in the alleged corruption of Rs14 billion. But, sources close to Cheema, says that it’s not just Ahad alone but his whole family is the “victim of harassment”. Arrest warrants for his cousin and brother-in-law were issued, without making it clear whether they are 'benamidars' of Ahad or abettors. Even call up notices were issued by the NAB to over 70-year-old Ahad's mother, his wife, sister, sister of brother-in-law. Except wife all the other women observe pardah.

His wife, who is a deputy commissioner, went to see Ahad on March 13 to the NAB, with court orders but instead of letting her see Ahad she was detained illegally in a room and produced before an investigation team which was headed by an “arrogant” officer.

She refused to answer any of their questions on the pretext that since she was not served with any call up notice and was there to see her husband only, the officer allegedly told her rudely that he doesn't need to serve call up notices, when a person enters NAB office that is call up notice. She was detained for hours and only after her refusal to join inquiry or investigation without fulfilling legal requirements no matter if she was arrested, she was allowed to leave. Same evening she received a call up notice for appearing before investigation team on March 16.

She, along her sister in law and Ahad's female cousin, went to the NAB office around 9:00am on March 16. They were made to sit in the NAB police station the whole day and were made to believe that they could be arrested any moment. Later Ahad told them when they were brought in the police station he was told about their arrival and was also made to believe that all the women would be arrested.

Later, Ahad told one of his visitors that he was subjected to unbearable mental agony and he doubted his conviction that if his women folk require to sacrifice for his principles.

After his arrest by the NAB, the former LDA DG openly claimed that he had not influenced the bidding process in Ashiana project. No such documentary or oral evidence had also come forth despite the fact that NAB had summoned LDA officials 8-10 times, the sources said. After failing to obtain any evidence against Cheema, NAB proceeded to arrest LDA Chief Engineer Israr Saeed and SPU Economist Bilal Kidwai in order to obtain statement, in addition to former CEO and Chief Engineer of PLDC, on March 9, 2018.

It is said that after 3 weeks of maltreatment, harassment and blackmailing on other issues, Chief Engineer of LDA and PLDC sought pardon. Statement of both the accused were allegedly prepared by NAB. Both statements were made without having any factual basis and cross-examination/confrontation. LDA Chief Engineer was convener of the Bid Evaluation Committee. In his statement, he alleged that the LDA ex-DG had influenced him during evaluation to ignore the defect (of not seeking shareholding) and he had carried out the orders by dominating the evaluation process. However, according to the sources, other members of the committee are available to tell that the statement of Chief Engineer was fabricated.

For the remaining one and a half months of remand, the sources said, Bilal Kidwai and Imtiaz Haider (former CEO PLDC) were forced to take pardon by making a statement against LDA ex-DG. Both of them refused and faced the brunt, the sources claimed. Cheema, it is said, was also offered to get off the hook by furnishing a statement against higher ups, otherwise a number of cases were to be initiated against him. Upon his refusal, a case of assets was also initiated against him. Additionally 4-5 inquiries are now underway against him.

Ashiana-e-Iqbal has been touted corruption of Rs14 billion through illegal award of contract to ineligible contractor but, sources close to Cheema insist the claim of corruption is gross misstatement of fact as Ashiana-e-Iqbal project is not a work contract, which requires payment by government for construction of apartments but was a public-private partnership project requiring the private developer to use its own funds to finance the construction of apartments.

The market value of the land portion (2000 kanals) to be developed into the plots was Rs2.4 billion in 2015 while cost of construction of 6,400 apartments was Rs14 billion, these sources said, adding that the developer had offered to take land against future value of developed plots.

“As no payment of public funds was required, and no work was undertaken due to inability of government to get unencumbered possession of land from Army and encroachers, no transaction either monetary or related to land occurred, thereby making any corruption is out of question,” said the sources.

“Rs14 billion being the projected cost of investment of private developer to develop plots and construct apartments has been illogically presented as quantum of corruption. It has moreover been claimed that Rs15 billion is the ‘opportunity loss’ of the government as the project cannot be completed. If one buys this argument, responsibility for every incomplete project or the project declared feasible but never taken up for any reason should also be fixed,” The News was told.

It is explained that the Ashiana-e-Iqbal project has been vigorously projected as a mega scam on media without elaboration on what the scam is. These sources said the fact of the matter is that no money from the public exchequer was ever due or paid to the private developer, no government land was transferred or was consumed by the developer and no funds were raised from the public or any down payments/installments were taken from the public against plots or apartments (except receiving Rs1,000 applications’ fee).

“The only expenditure incurred on the project was for preparation of feasibility, clearance of land, advertisements etc. These are regular project expenditure unrelated to any private party,” the sources said, adding that reference filed by NAB validates above facts as it fails to make out any case other than project failure, claiming regular project expenditure as loss to public exchequer.

Regarding the allegation of crime against Ahad, it is said that an ineligible contractor, i.e. Bismillah Engineering Services, a sister concern of Paragon City, was illegally granted Ashiana-e-Iqbal contract. However, the sources said that facts as compared to allegations are as follows: The allegation is that Bismillah Engineering Services was awarded the contract. Fact is that agreement was signed with a joint venture of three firms: Sparco Construction, Chinese firm Anhui and Bismillah, therefore, it was not just Bismillah Engineering.

The allegation is that Bismillah Engineering was ineligible to get the contract. Fact is that Bismillah Engineering entered into a joint venture precisely because it could not fulfill criteria on its own. The entire purpose of a joint venture is to allow individually ineligible firms to join strengths in order to win contracts.

The allegation is that Bismillah Engineering was a C4 category Pakistan Engineering Council firm ineligible to be awarded contract beyond Rs150 million. Fact is that C4 licence is for works contractors. For investment projects, such category is irrelevant as government is not paying Rs14 billion, rather firm is investing Rs14 billion from its own pocket.

The allegation is that Bismillah Engineering was actually lead member being holder of 90 percent shares instead of Sparco Construction, which was shown as lead member during bidding process. Fact is that development agreement signed by PLDC with the JV, recognises Sparco as lead member; power of attorney signed by all three members formalised Sparco as lead member; LDA communicated during pre-bid meeting to all bidders that lead member can be minor shareholder, and; Pakistan Engineering Council definition of lead member used in the bidding documents does not create any connection between lead member and shareholding.

Allegation is that Bismillah Engineering being a C4 firm of Rs150 million limits lacked the financial soundness required for the project. Fact is that Bismillah as part of the JV deposited Rs250 million performance security with PLDC, met the financial close requirement of 10 percent equity, which is approximately Rs1.6 billion by demonstrating such funds in its account, and incurred expenditure of roughly Rs400 million on the project.

Allegation is that Bismillah Engineering was illegally awarded the contract. Fact is that Ashiana-e-Iqbal project was awarded through extremely transparent and open process as per requirement of Punjab Public Private Partnership Act 2014. Project was announced in international papers, bid submission deadline was extended twice (total 60 days), bidding documents were made available free of cost (and downloaded by 84 entities), 2 pre-bid meetings were held and minutes shared with all participants and downloaders, an investment conference was held with top 18 developers of Pakistan at CM office and single-stage-three-envelope procedure was adopted to prevent disclosing bidders to each other (to avoid chance of collusion). Finally after evaluation of bidders, results were presented to PLDC Board and then provincial PPP steering committee, the regulator defined in PPP Act 2014, before award.

Regarding the cancellation of earlier contract, it is said that NAB has created a sensational story alleging that legally awarded contract for development of Ashiana-e-Iqbal was cancelled in order to award to a favourite contractor at inflated price. However, the story does not mention the timeframe, type of contract or other relevant information that shows how baseless this story is. Facts, according to these sources, are that government of Punjab transferred 3100 kanals government land to PLDC in 2012 to build 2-storey bungalows on 2 and 3 marla plots in similar manner as Ashiana project in Attari Saroba (1700 housing units). For the purpose of land development, i.e. creating plots, a tender of Rs1.5 billion was floated by PLDC that was won by M/s Calson. Tender for constructing houses at cost of approx. Rs19 billion (as per KPMG feasibility) was yet to be awarded. Later CM received a complaint that the bidding process was manipulated by M/s Calson (Ch Aamir Latif & Sons). He ordered an inquiry under a committee headed by then Finance Secretary, Tariq Bajwa. The committee noted certain irregularities and recommended that the case be sent to Chief Minister Inspection Team. CM ordered that Anti-Corruption Department should hold an inquiry.

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