(RAPAPORT) Times of India: Evidence emerging from India's second largest bank loan default raises suspicion that there was a criminal conspiracy to defraud Indian public sector banks of about Rs 6,500 crore and take most of the money out of the country or divert it to other projects.
The Winsome Group, which is into diamond trading, has now accumulated Rs 6,581 crore on defaulted loans from a consortium of 15 public sector banks, bringing it in competition with Kingfisher Airlines for the tag of India's highest non-performing asset (NPA).
The credit was given to three group companies -- Rs 4,366 crore to Winsome Diamond & Jewellers, Rs 1,932 crore to Forever Precious Diamond and Jewellery and Rs 283 crore to Suraj Diamonds.
In March 2013, the group started having problems repaying the loans. The banks sent notices as a wilful defaulter on October 15, 2013, and in recent months the loans have been declared as NPA. Last month, the Central Vigilance Commission referred the case to CBI for criminal investigation.
Winsome promoter Jatin Mehta told the banks that his buyers of gold in UAE had defaulted on payments, making him unable to repay the loans. According to Mehta, the buyers suffered losses of $1 billion in derivatives and commodities trading.
Documents accessed by TOI show the story may not be so simple. The evidence raises questions about the oversight exercised by banks, customs department and regulatory bodies, especially those in the financial sector.
According to Winsome, 80 percent of its exports went to just six companies based in Sharjah, UAE. Interestingly, these firms have a common ownership.
Winsome has 13 distributors in the Middle East, of which 12 are controlled by one Haitham Sulaiman Abu Obaida. He owns Italian Gold FZE, and has the power of attorney on behalf of the other distributors. According to documents with TOI, it is now clear that Obaida also controlled some of the suppliers of Winsome, and fully owns at least one of them, Al Noora FZE, a key supplier of Winsome.
Raising questions about the so-called distribution network of Winsome, documents show that 10 of its distributors were incorporated only in 2012, five on the same day, June 25, 2012.
The 11th distributor, Al Mufied Jewellery FZE, was registered in 2010. The 12th distributor is a company named Al Alam Jewellery FZE, incorporated in 2010 in the Ras Al Kaimah Free Zone and had Suneil Mehta as its director. It is not clear who Mehta is, but Al Alam Jewellery is fully owned by Herald International, which is based in the Bahamas, a tax haven. At least one bank has now reported that Al Alam is a related entity of Winsome, and not an independent distributor as claimed by Mehta to the banks.
Other than the nature of its so called official distributors, it is now clear that the group used to export gold jewelry and coins to 28 entities in Dubai and Middle East that were owned by Jatin Mehta and family.
Some employees of the Winsome group interviewed by private investigators hired by a creditor bank said that Italian Gold of Abu Obaida was not known as a distributor, nor did it have any known storage facilities in UAE and Saudi Arabia. According to these investigations, Italian Gold and other distributors do not seem to have the collective capability to lose $1 billion, as claimed by Winsome when it defaulted. Worse, there are now indications that Winsome may not have provided such large scale credit to its distributors.
According to input from private investigators and auditors accessed by TOI, there is evidence to show that the four shipping companies engaged by Winsome for transporting gold may not have carried the amount of gold that Winsome claims to have sent out of India.
Also, there are several discrepancies in shipping bills of Winsome. For example, in Chennai SEZ, the challan was custom-stamped on one day while the shipping bill was custom-stamped several days later.
The emerging evidence raises suspicion that a part of the loan given by government banks was taken out of India and diverted to businesses outside India. Incidentally, Winsome group's promoter is no longer in India and is suspected to be in Singapore.
According to files accessed by TOI, there is suspicion that some of the money raised from the banks was also diverted to real estate investments in Mumbai and Dubai. TOI is withholding the name of at least one project in Mumbai, owned by a major business house, into which some of the money of Winsome is suspected to have flown, according to the report from one of the affected banks.
The collateral security provided by Winsome is worth just about Rs 250 crore. And, Jatin Mehta may not have many assets in India. He used to rent commercial spaces and operated through his trusted staff and managers. Investigators have so far been able to track down just one property owned by his family members, a flat in his mother Gunvantiben Mehta's name in Malabar Hill in Mumbai.
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