Beware of Watchdog: Transparency International — I

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The amazement started around the fall of 2010. The venue was Bangkok. The event was the International Anti-Corruption Conference, the annual Woodstock of whistleblowers and due diligence die-hards. I was there because I had been nominated as a Young Journalist Fellow for Transparency International, the IACC’s host and the world’s most respected and powerful transparency watchdog. Or so they said.

There were other reporters in the crew, too. From the hotels to the lunches, mostly everything was paid for: our job, as defined by the fellowship, was to cover the hundreds of delegates from across the world of anti-corruption and understand their ‘fight the good fight’ narratives. It was all very charming, really.

Naturally curious, I asked the Pakistan question. The Pakistani delegation was missing from the conference, but I started running into people who knew of Transparency International Pakistan (TIP), and its powerful leader, Adil Gilani, the twice-elected chairperson of the outfit. Noticeable was the nervous twitch, the curt tone, the glib ‘yeah, we’ve heard about the Pakistan TI chapter’s work’ utterances; but, frankly, I couldn’t find a story. Gilani wasn’t around (it would soon emerge that he was being probed by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency around that time) and nobody gave up too much information.

Much like the Pakistani military, which I also cover, there was a sense of fraternity amongst the TI brass that was essentially aimed at protecting their own: At TI, messaging and perception for reputation management was a key strategy, less sharing facts.

Four years later, it’s becoming clear why an anti-corruption watchdog like Transparency International is so particularly good at keeping the lid on its own transparency. Months of investigations published in series in this newspaper since last fall have highlighted in detail the conflicts of interest and irregularities that plague Transparency International Pakistan, particularly its senior leadership, all under the neglectful or complicit gaze of TI’s global bosses in Berlin, but not much has happened in terms of the accountability.

(Note: Immediately after my initial reports [“Who’s Watching the Watchdog”, published here last October, there was no response, rejoinder or clarification from TI and/or TIP about my findings. After some prodding, the current TIP leadership accused me of being “young”, and, worse, humiliated me in official correspondence, but there was no significant response to counter or acknowledge my claims.)

TI donor interest in my findings, probably for their own due diligence, as well as continued reminders to TI’s Berlin-based Secretariat (TIS) seeking a response about their Pakistan chapter’s discrepancies eventually paved the way for an internal investigation against TIP to be launched earlier this summer.

Considering this was happening at a time when TIP’s accreditation was up for renewal, and TI’s Berlin Secretariat was in the midst of securing major international donations, here was a conveniently timely development. What was disheartening, though, was the process: TIP was investigating TIP itself.

A “misogynistic old boys club, who scratch each others’ backs”, as a former TIP Trustee, the institutional graft expert and scholar Ayesha Siddiqa told me, was going to set upon the path of righteous self-correction. It was a tall order, and not very transparent either.

Also unfortunate was that this in-house “ethics hearing” was happening under the complicit watch of the TI bosses in Berlin, who have made their reputation telling the world about how internally-led investigations are a terrible idea. Such double standards were compounded by delay tactics – like TIP insisting I attend their meetings and bring my proofs to Karachi, despite of logistical and financial constraints – which ended up blocking any real progress into the investigation of the discrepancies at TIP. If there were any findings about TIP’s ethical standards, or lack of, none of them were shared with either the free press or myself.

Today, Adil Gilani has returned to the forefront of TIP activities. Despite being an advisor – he’s served out the permitted two consecutive chair terms, and is waiting out the rules to make a comeback for a third – Gilani’s essentially ‘pulling a Putin’ as he continues to be the de facto operational boss and public face of the organisation. Most of the notification letters (over 90 percent) the watchdog has made a business of sending to public and private institutions carry his name; he grants interviews and claims access to boardrooms in the name of TIP, even though he’s not an executive, staffer or Trustee of the organisation. And he negotiates with different parties in the name of TIP for purposes clear (like following requisite procurement and tender rules) and unclear (like positioning TIP and its affiliates on procurement boards). Thus, it’s crucial to understand what this very powerful, if unofficial, leader of TIP has been up to since bearing the standard of this country’s premier anti-corruption watchdog.

First, conflicts of interest: From the late 2000s, Gilani served as a shareholder and director of the AKD REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) Management Company, a property development arm of stock-market heavyweight Aqeel Karim Dhedi’s empire. In recent years, he went on to represent AKD’s real estate interests legally, operationally and institutionally, while under his stewardship and around the same time period, the watchdog TIP went to war: notifying, warning and sue the competition – other real estate developers like Emaar and Meinhardt – that AKD was up against in Karachi’s mega real estate schemes race. Details of these and other irregularities of the Gilani-AKD combine were documented in this newspaper last October; none of them were challenged by TI, TIP and/or AKD.

Also, neither has Gilani publicly registered his conflict of interest statements stating these discrepancies, a direct contravention of at least three clauses of TIP’s own Governance Manual. Needless to say, neither Gilani, nor TIP, respond to my queries, either.

But those are dreary, technical findings, all previously reported. To be fair, TIP was unjustly lambasted during the Asif Ali Zardari regime by Rehman Malik’s Interior Ministry and accused of being a “private detective agency”. But TIP has also been slammed, not prejudicially, of political misconduct, too.

The journalist and intellectual-at-large, Raza Rumi, was not the only one to question TIP’s more-loyal-than-the-king, and very out of ambit, politicking during the early days of Geo’s closure last April, when it issued a gratuitous statement supporting the Jang/Geo network’s shutdown in the wake of the Hamid Mir issue.

The politicking would go further back, to last summer, when Adil Gilani would use TIP’s official platform to “run a proper online election campaign, promoting IK & PTI [Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf]”, according to the former TIP trustee, Ayesha Siddiqa. And then, of course, was the heady year of 2010, when Gilani would fight tooth and nail against everything the other Gilani – Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani – pitched, even the controversial and inter-institutional turf war between legislature and judiciary that was the Contempt of Court bill, which would be oddball and not dispassionate politics for a transparency watchdog.

That same year, ace investigative reporter Rauf Klasra would a do a whole series on the multibillion-rupee NICL [National Insurance Corporation Limited] scam: guess who would feature prominently in the murky scandal? Adil Gilani, the same man whose letters had unfurled the shady scheme in the first place, was eventually investigated by the FIA for staying in contact with an absconder, Qasim Dada, and, more seriously, for offering a bailout-indemnity scheme via a Memorandum of Understanding to the troubled NICL board (basically, a ‘follow-TI’s-procurement-recommendations-for-a-clean-chit-from-TI’ deal), which was corroborated directly or indirectly by at least four board members.

Also, the same year, the recently expired Majid Nizami would edit a remarkable story for his The Nation along, as would competitor Arif Nizami for Pakistan Today, further establishing how TIP/Gilani’s modus operandi would go into play for access to boardrooms and secretariats: In the case of PNSC [Pakistan National Shipping Corporation], Gilani would exploit discrepancies by implementing a brilliantly simple stratagem: first, he would discover an irregularity (a conflict of interest, one allegedly involving Secretary Ports and Shipping, Saleem Khan, and his wife); next, he would shoot off letters to the institution, grabbing its attention and creating panic; then, he would threaten to disclose the irregularities to the media; eventually, the resultant leverage would help him install a TIP affiliate, in this case his own son, Sohrab, on the PNSC board. When the arrangement became untenable, Sohrab would eventually resign and move on, but the marvelous template of maneuvering would remain: Pick an institution; spot a problem; threaten to publicise the problem; land a favour (like a procurement, governance or advisory board position), and then sit back and relax till the weather changed.

Gilani’s discrepancies are not news now, nor were they back in late 2010, just around the time I was serving my TI fellowship in Thailand, exactly when the FIA was investigating Pakistan’s watchdog-in-chief and asking him some pertinent and disturbing questions, the responses to which have yet to be officially disclosed by him or his colleagues, despite of TIP’s Governance Manual protocols that call for full disclosure to battle real and even perceived conflicts of interest.

To cite Rauf Klasra’s investigation of the FIA investigation: How did Gilani’s job history qualify him as Pakistan’s watchdog-in-chief; why was he terminated from his job at Karachi Port Trust; did he sign an NICL-type MoU with Pakistan State Oil as well, which was terminated later (more on Gilani’s PSO dealings is coming up); whether Gilani had been getting financial benefits from his “clients” (or patrons like AKD) with whom he used to sign such MoUs; what about his “private consultancies”; did he sign an agreement with Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) to perform the role of a watchdog or he was acting on his own without any formal understanding; what methodology was he was following to verify facts about any official irregularity taking place in any particular government department; and what were the strengths and qualifications of the staff he was using to dig out those irregularities, embezzlements and frauds in government departments?

Years later, I would string some of those answers together: former NAB [National Accountability Bureau] official, TIP Trustee and insider Ayesha Siddiqa would help, claiming that “Gilani’s old boys network didn’t have the forensic or financial expertise to make the claims they made”; that their own internal spending – which is not easily calculable as their internal audits and statements are not publicly itemised for discretionary and events spending – was “inappropriate and excessive, especially for entertainment and events”; and that TIP would apply pressure tactics on its associates – in one instance in 2012, recalls Siddiqa, Gilani personally demanded that Siddiqa, then an advisor to former chairman of NAB, Admiral Fasih Bokhari, should “treat with care a couple of friends” who were under a corruption investigation.

These were FBR officials – allegedly involved in a scam of 40 billion rupees in unpaid taxes by cellular phone companies – who were “buddies of Adil Gilani and enough of a reason for him to interfere in and influence” an ongoing federal investigation, according to Siddiqa.

Some of the other questions can perhaps be answered by a closer look at Gilani’s 2012 tax returns: Two houses in DHA Karachi, valued at the modest sum of eight and nine million, which would make them the best buys on North Street and Zulfiqar Street, if not all of Karachi. Also, two plots in Phase VIII of DHA Karachi, declared worth seven and three million each, which makes them the best value for money for whoever purchases them from Gilani, or, if you know your Karachi property rates, raises the question of him wrongly declaring their actual value. Of course, the property question is compounded by Rs65 million in saving certificates and bank accounts for a man who’s a former government servant turned NGO-wallah and, in 2012, a mysterious 50 million rupees “Supply of Goods” payment for which he’s only paid 3.5 percent in taxes, makes one wonder how lucrative the watchdog business really is.

But let’s not forget that on tax returns filed from 2009-11, Pakistan’s premier watchdog’s chairman was citing his email address as “Mohammad.saqib@akdcapital.com”, which belonged to the Chief Accountant and Company Secretary of AKD Capital Limited. See, young Saqib, a talented accountant, was filing taxes on behalf of Gilani while “providing administrative support to AKD management”; this made sense, for Gilani was using AKD’s executive offices to plan and execute much of TIP’s operations, according to two sources inside AKD’s company who asked to remain anonymous.

Not long before he was assassinated, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, always an avid social media user and not one to hold back, tweeted about TIP: “Transparency International is run by a local, Adil Gilani, who was fired from KPT [Karachi’s port authority] for fraud. Neither transparent nor international.”

Next, Gilani would file a defamation lawsuit against Taseer for $5.8 million; but soon after, Taseer would be assassinated, shot multiple times by his own bodyguard for defending the truth about the poor of this wretched land; with him would go his details about the TIP overlord’s transgressions.

There is a joke at Harvard Business School: that some of the answers lie with the accountants, but all of the answers rest with the dead. In the case of TIP and Taseer, Harvard’s bad joke stands redeemed.

Continued

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