How can PM's panel appoint a tainted CVC: SC
Dealing a big blow to the United Progressive Alliance government, the Supreme Court on Thursday quashed the appointment of P J Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner. The apex court held that the recommendation made by the high-powered panel -- headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- did not consider the relevant material and therefore its advice "does not exist in law".
Thomas, 60, who is facing a corruption case in a Kerala court related to the Palmolein import scam, resigned immediately after the apex court gave its keenly awaited verdict, just six months after the former bureaucrat was appointed as the 14th CVC.
"He has resigned. The Supreme Court has also held his appointment as illegal," Law Minister Veerappa Moily told reporters.
A bench comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and justices K S Radhakrishnan and Swatantra Kumar said, "We declare that the recommendation made by the high-powered committee is non-existent in law. Which means that the recommendations made on September 3, 2010 does not exist in law. Consequently, the appointment of Thomas goes."
Image: P J Thomas
'It affects the institutional integrity of the CVC'
In comments that came as an embarrassment for the prime minister, the bench severely criticised the committee for not considering the relevant material. The bench reprimanded the panel for not considering the pending criminal case against Thomas in the Palmolein import case and the recommendations of the department of personnel between 2000 and 2004 for initiating disciplinary proceedings against him.
"It is the duty of the high-powered committee to not recommend the name of a person who can affect the institutional integrity of the CVC," the bench said, adding the institutional integrity and the integrity of a person holding the post of CVC is the touchstone of the office under the CVC Act.
The court said the HPC failed to consider relevant material against Thomas. The entire focus was on his bio-data and none of the government bodies, including the DoPT, focused on larger issue of institutional integrity, said the bench.
The apex court said that if the selection process adversely affects the institution, then it is the duty of the authority not to recommend such persons and in the present case, this vital aspect was not taken into account by the HPC.
Image: The Supreme Court
'This argument is without merit'
"In our opinion, CVC is an integrity institution," the bench said, adding the HPC has to keep in mind the institutional integrity of the CVC while making recommendations for the appointment of a candidate to the office.
The court rejected the contention of Thomas and the government that the appointment of CVC cannot be brought under judicial review and said the legality of the recommendation can very much be reviewed by it.
It said the CVC is India's integrity commission, which also exists in several other countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hongkong and Canada, where they are considered as integrity institutions.
"The CVC is also one such institution and it is clear from the provisions and ambit of the CVC Act," the bench said.
The bench also rejected the government's contention that vigilance clearance given by the CVC in 2008 was the basis for the empanelment of Thomas as a candidate for the post of the CVC.
On the issue of vigilance clearance, the court said, "This argument is without merit and we find no substance in it".
Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
'The panel did not consider the relevant material'
It said the HPC and no government authority focused on the larger issue of institutional integrity of the office of CVC while recommending the name of Thomas.
While observing that the touchstone for the appointment of CVC is the institutional integrity as well as the personal integrity of the candidate, the court said in the future, appointments should not be restricted to civil servants alone but people of impeccable integrity from other fields should also be considered.
The bench said if there is a dissent note by any of the three members of the panel, it has to be given with sufficient reasons and has to be considered by a majority.
Further, the majority should also give reasons for their decision as this will lead to a transparent process in public interest and also inspire public confidence, it said.
While not considering the relevant material of the DoPT, the bench said, "It is surprising that there were notings by the DoPT between 2000 and 2004 and all observed that penalty proceedings be instituted against Thomas."
Such notings were not considered in the case of Thomas, who was given the CVC's clearance on September 6, 2008.
"No reference of such notings made between 2000 and 2004 is there. Therefore, on personal integrity, HPC did not consider the relevant material. We are concerned with the institution and its integrity but not with the individual," the bench said, adding the impartiality of the institution has to be maintained, which is envisaged in the CVC Act.
The court scrapped Thomas' appointment as CVC on a PIL by the Center for Public Interest Litigation, retired bureaucrats and police officials, including former chief election commissioner J M Lyngdoh, challenging his appointment in view of a criminal case pending against him in a Kerala court. Thomas was appointed CVC on September 7 last year.
Image: P J Thomas
SC dismisses Thomas's argument
Opposing the petitions seeking his removal, Thomas had contended that he was appointed as the CVC after the vigilance clearance given to him for his appointment as secretary in the Union government and he needed no further vigilance clearance before his appointment as the CVC.
He had also contended that the corruption case pending against him in the Kerala court was a result of political rivalry between former chief minister K Karunakaran and present Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan.
The petitioners, however, had contended that Thomas could not be considered as a person of "impeccable integrity" as a chargesheet was filed against him in the Palmolein import scam when he was a secretary in the Kerala ministry of food and civil supplies. He had secured bail from a local court.
The petitioners had also pointed out that he was appointed despite strong objections from Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, who was a member of the three-member panel headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to clear his appointment. The other member was Home Minister P Chidambaram.
The petitioners also said that Thomas could not be appointed the CVC on account of "conflict of interest" as till recently he was serving as the telecom secretary. He had faced allegations that he was involved in an alleged cover-up of the 2G spectrum scam.
Image: BJP leader Sushma Swaraj