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When a broken door sent sleuths on corporate espionage trail!

Source: PTI
February 22, 2015 17:30 IST
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It is being touted as a major 'corporate espionage' story involving large business houses, but it was an amateurish rushed job by players on the ground that blew the lid off a long-running syndicate leaking 'secret' official documents from the oil ministry.

First, an important document was found lying on a photo-copier machine one morning about eight months ago in the Ministry, soon after the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office.

The suspicion grew further when the door of a director's room was found to be compromised and a thorough probe was launched to catch those transporting 'secret' documents out of the Ministry, culminating into what is now being talked about as a major crackdown on a suspected 'corporate espionage' ring with a dozen arrests already.

It has been one of the worst-kept secrets in the national capital that key official documents often find their way to the corporates and their lobbyists from the small rooms and narrow corridors of the famed Shastri Bhawan, which houses many key ministries.

What has surprised many is the modus operandi of breaking into the rooms late in night with the help of duplicate keys and ID cards. However, one of the main accused Shantanu Saikia has now claimed that it was a Rs 10,000-crore scam (Rs 100 billion) and he was only doing the "cover-up" job.

While refusing to identify the specific instance that led to the probe, Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan told PTI, "We had discomfort (over a certain incident) and the competent authorities were informed."

Duplicate keys were apparently made for seven rooms including that of Special Secretary, two Joint Secretaries - and some Directors dealing with sensitive issues like exploration policy, petroleum pricing and gas pricing.

Locks have been changed for all rooms since then and the Ministry is now also strictly adhering to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of handing critical information.

"Any secret file or document has to be hand-delivered or sent in a sealed envelop," Oil Secretary Saurabh Chandra said. Besides, it has been decided that many other standard drills will also be followed in "letter and spirit".

"There is an SOP. That has to be strictly adhered to, right from my office to down below," Pradhan said. Sources said that it was sometime in June last year when some critical documents were found on a photocopier machine when room of a Joint Secretary was opened in the morning.

Adding to the seriousness of the matter, the concerned Joint Secretary was considered very critical of a large corporate house on matters related to a gas pricing issue.

Initially, the top officials of the Ministry suspected hand of some internal staff. Still they enhanced the vigilance and officials began locking their rooms even while going to washrooms, sources said.

However, the situation became much more serious when the door of a Director was found compromised about two months ago.

This led to the Ministry ordering a through investigation and heightened surveillance, including large-scale installation of CCTV cameras across offices.

This was followed by days of enhanced vigil and surveillance by sleuths and eventually a trap was laid by the Delhi Police, resulting in the arrest of five persons including two junior staff in the Ministry on Thursday. More arrests have been made since then.

Asharam, 58, who was brought in as multi-tasking staff in the Petroleum Minister's office during S Jaipal Reddy's time, and his associates Ishwar Singh, 56, allegedly made duplicate keys of the rooms of various key officials.

These keys were used to access the rooms in the middle of the night to photocopy the documents, which were later sold to energy consultants and corporates.

Sources said that the syndicate normally operated during the night, but about two months back they conducted their operation early in the morning when the door of the Director's room was compromised.

The cleaning staff apparently found the door compromised and informed senior officials about the same. The Ministry is still looking into how the alleged thieves could lay their hands on keys to seven rooms.

Sources said the accused allegedly used fake ID cards to enter Shastri Bhawan, which houses the Petroleum Ministry on the second floor, in the middle of the night. They would use duplicate keys to open rooms of senior officials and photocopy the secret official documents. 

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