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Satyamgate: Probe agency yet to open its innings

BS Reporter in New Delhi | January 19, 2009 09:06 IST

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The Serious Fraud Investigation Office, given the task of investigating the Rs 7,000-crore (Rs 70 billion) Satyam [Get Quote] fraud, has not got a single court verdict in the 750 cases it has filed since its inception in 2003.

Till December 2007, 48 cases had been referred to the SFIO - which was set up to investigate serious and complex corporate frauds. Investigation reports in 30 cases have been submitted to the government.

Lengthy legal processes, multiple agencies following the same case and inadequate manpower are cited as the reasons for the SFIO's poor record.

Experts doubt if the agency will be able to come out with a report within three months as it faces a staff shortage. Also, multiple agencies working on the case may give rise to confusion and delays, they say.

According to an eminent corporate law expert, Satyam-like financial fraud is unique and the SFIO is not used to handling such cases. Also, he said, litigation in India takes a long time and for such a tricky case it would take even longer.

An SFIO official who did not wish to be identified said they were "extremely short-staffed" and were working on holidays too. He said the agency would try and come out with a report on the Satyam fraud within the stipulated period but it depended on a lot of factors. The office has only 50 people, which include a director and nine joint directors. It has representatives from the income-tax department, revenue, intelligence and the Enforcement Directorate.

When the Satyam case was referred to the SFIO, Prem Chand Gupta, minister for corporate affairs, had said that the agency would look into the "entire gamut of the Satyam fraud".

However, experts say the SFIO can investigate only under the purview of the Companies Act and violations under the Securities and Exchange Board of India rules would have to be referred to the board. If some violations fell under the Indian Penal Code, they would have to be referred to the local police station, they said.

In Satyam case, the violations would be so sophisticated that it would be difficult for the SFIO to unravel them, said an expert.

"The case seems to involve not only corporate governance but also criminal liability. It is for such cases that the SFIO was created," said Vinod Dhall, former secretary in the Ministry of Corporate Affairs who set up the SFIO. He recommends more powers to the SFIO so that it can directly pursue criminal cases like forgery too.

The SFIO is a multi-disciplinary body, which comprises tax professionals, auditors, fraud examiners, capital market experts and banking professionals.

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