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American foreign agent who cheated SL out of $ 6.5 mn gets 12-year jail term in US

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* Zuberi, American of Pakistani and Indian descent was hired by SL embassy in US in 2014

A Los Angeles-based venture capitalist and political fundraiser who faced several felony charges related to his work as a foreign agent, including cheating the Sri Lankan government out of millions of dollars promising to rebuild the country’s image following the end of the LTTE war, was sentenced on Thursday (18) to 144 months in federal prison, foreign media reported.

Imaad Shah Zuberi, 50, of Arcadia, California, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips, who also ordered him to pay $ 15,705,080 in restitution and a criminal fine of $1.75 million.

The media, including the US-based ‘Sri Lanka Express’ quoted prosecutors as having said Zuberi had given illegal campaign contributions to Joe Biden, Lindsey Graham and a host of other US politicians.

Investigations revealed that Zuberi had received USD 6.5 mn in 2014 from the then Sri Lankan government after the conclusion of the war in May 2009 to thwart US moves against this country. The following year, the US had an accountability resolution passed at the UNHRC against Sri Lanka.

The sentencing took place less than a week ahead of the commencement of the 46th sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)

The UNP-led yahapalana government exposed Zuberi’s involvement in high profile Sri Lanka project, but baulked at initiating a probe.

In November 2019, Zuberi pleaded guilty to a three-count information charging him with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by making false statements on a FARA filing, tax evasion, and making illegal campaign contributions. In June 2020, Zuberi pleaded guilty in a separate case to one count of obstruction of justice. His sentence today pertains to both cases.

The obstruction charge to which Zuberi pleaded guilty in June 2020 stemmed from a federal investigation into a $900,000 donation from Zuberi through his company to the Donald Trump presidential inaugural committee in late 2016. Some of the funds Zuberi donated to the committee came from other people, including one individual who gave him a $50,000 check.

“Zuberi turned acting as an unregistered foreign agent into a business enterprise,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers in a press statement issued by the U.S. Justice Department . “He used foreign money to fund illegal campaign contributions that bought him political influence, and used that influence to lobby US officials for policy changes on behalf of numerous foreign principals.”

Demers said Zuberi, while concealing lucrative agreements with foreign principals, also made false statements about them in a FARA filing.

“After learning he was under investigation, Zuberi doubled down on his criminal conduct, obstructing justice by creating false records, destroying evidence, and attempting to purchase witnesses’ silence. This sentence should deter others who would seek to corrupt our political processes and compromise our institutions in exchange for foreign cash.”

Zuberi operated Avenue Ventures LLC, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, and solicited foreign nationals and representatives of foreign governments with claims he could use his contacts in Washington, D.C. to change U.S. foreign policy and create business opportunities for his clients and himself.

In addition to consulting fees, his foreign clients advanced funds to Zuberi to make investments, or to fund campaign contributions. Zuberi hired lobbyists, retained public relations professionals, and made campaign contributions that gave him access to high-level U.S. officials, some of whom acted in support of his clients.

As evidence of his access and influence, Zuberi distributed to his clients photographs of himself discussing policy with elected officials.

Among the top-ranking politicians with whom Zuberi met were former President Obama, then Senator Biden, former President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Through myriad international contacts and business partners, Imaad Shah Zuberi was able to raise money and gain influence among the highest political circles in the US. Zuberi used his status to solicit funds for lobbying, campaign contributions, and investments, but ultimately swindled his business partners and pocketed most of the funds for himself,” said Special Agent in Charge Ryan Korner of IRS-Criminal Investigation Los Angeles Field Office.

Korner accused Zuberi, Zuberi is a naturalized American of Pakistani and Indian descent, of being “an opportunist at his core” who used political figures across the aisle to lend an appearance of credibility to his “political charades.”

The Sri Lankan government through its embassy in Washington hired Zuberi in 2014 to boost the country’s image in the United States vis-a-vis various allegations.

The Justice Department said: “Zuberi promised to make substantial expenditures on lobbying efforts, legal expenses, and media buys, which prompted Sri Lanka to agree to pay Zuberi a total of $8.5 million over the course of six months in 2014. Days after Sri Lanka made an initial payment of $3.5 million, Zuberi transferred $1.6 million into his personal brokerage accounts and used another $1.5 million to purchase real estate.”

In total, Sri Lanka wired $6.5 million pursuant to the contract, and Zuberi used more than $5.65 million of that money to the benefit of himself and his wife. Zuberi paid less than $850,000 to lobbyists, public relations firms and law firms, and refused to pay certain subcontractors based on false claims that Sri Lanka had not provided sufficient funds to pay invoices.

On his 2014 tax return, Zuberi claimed income of $558,233 received as lobbying fees from the Sri Lankan government while failing to report more than $5.65 million paid by Colombo. “Zuberi’s tax evasion over the course of four years – 2012 through 2015 – caused tax losses ranging from $3.5 million to as much as $9.5 million.”

Zuberi was also accused of siphoning funds invested in U.S. Cares, a company set up to export humanitarian aid to Iran. In 2013 and 2014, Zuberi used more than 90 percent of the approximately $7 million investors deposited into U.S. Cares for his personal benefit, which included purchasing real estate, paying down debt such as mortgages and credit card bills, remodeling properties, investing in brokerage accounts, and donating $250,000 to a non-profit organization established by a former high-ranking elected official.

Zuberi violated the Federal Election Campaign Act in 2015 by making conduit contributions in the names of other people, reimbursing contributions made by others, and being reimbursed for contributions he made. Over a five-year period – 2012 through 2016 – he made or solicited more than $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

Zuberi is expected to report to prison May 25.



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COPA questions lion’s share of fines going to Customs

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Irregularities, lapses, corruption erode public finance

By Shamindra Ferdinando

 The Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) has summoned the Inland Revenue Department tomorrow (23) for an inquiry regarding the inordinate delay in collecting taxes amounting to billions of rupees and extraordinary payments made to the officers of the Customs Department out of fines imposed on both public and private sector enterprises.

Besides, a COPA sub-committee is inquiring into revenue losses suffered over the years as a result of releasing vehicles imported for special purposes as dual-purpose vehicles. 

SLPP MP Prof. Tissa Vitharana heads the all-party watchdog committee. 

Secretary General of Parliament Dhammika Dasanayake in a statement issued on April 19 through the Communication Department of the Parliament said that Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and COPA summoned four enterprises. COPE called the Sri Lanka Football Federation and the National Film Corporation on April 22 and 23, respectively. The COPA summoned the Wildlife Conservation Department and the Inland Revenue on April 21 and April 23, respectively, Dasanayake said.

COPA has fixed the meeting in the wake of disclosure of major shortcomings in the overall revenue collection process. Following COPA meeting Inland Revenue Chief H.M.C. Bandara on March 10, the watchdog committee called for accelerated measures to recover dues. The COPA pointed out that out of Rs 107 bn due to the government, only Rs 224 mn had been recovered so far, immediate measures were required to collect taxes and fines.

At the same meeting, the COPA, having questioned the correctness of a list containing tax defaulters furnished by the Inland Revenue Department, emphasized the pivotal importance of rectifying the shortcomings. The COPA also raised the practicability in recovering taxes in terms of the data provided by ‘Legacy’ and ‘RAMIS’ computer systems. 

The Inland Revenue Commissioner General lamented before COPA how inordinate delay in legal proceedings thwarted their efforts to recover taxes. The COPA assured that the Justice Ministry and the Finance Ministry would be summoned for a meeting along with the Inland Revenue Department to explore ways and means of overcoming the issue at hand.

At a subsequent COPA meeting held late March, it was revealed that in addition to their failure to recover taxes amounting to Rs 2,670 mn due from casinos, the Inland Revenue received 6,878 dishonored cheques to the tune of Rs 2,451,465,383. COPA members present on this occasion included Dayasiri Jayasekera, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, Tissa Attanayake, Mohamed Muzammil, Niroshan Perera, Dr. Upul Galapatti, Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, Cader Mastan, S. Sritharan and Weerasumana Weerasinha.

That particular meeting was also told that the amount of collectable taxes in terms of the ‘Default Taxes (Special Provisions) Act No 16 of 2010 (certified on Dec 07, 2010) amounted to a staggering Rs 144.5 bn. 

COPA and the Consultative Committee on Ports and Shipping had also taken up on March 9 and 24 the highly contentious issue of the Customs officers taking a big share of fines imposed on tax defaulters, both public and private sector. COPA pointed out that the Customs took advantage of the provision that 50 per cent of the fines imposed on defaulters were shared among those involved in a particular detection. COPA has discussed two specific issues in this regard. COPA pointed out that the allocation of 50 per cent of a fine received from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) for defaulting in respect of gantry cranes to Customs officers was a major problem. COPA focused on taking necessary measures in this regard after having discussed the matter with relevant authorities, including the Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle.

COPA pointed out how out of Rs 205 mn fine imposed on Lanka Coal Company (Pvt) Limited for defrauding taxes, Rs 102.5 mn (50 per cent of the total amount) had been distributed among Customs officers as rewards and Rs 41 mn for their welfare (20 per cent) thereby leaving the government with only Rs 61.5 mn. COPA has directed Treasury Secretary Attygalle to conduct a fresh inquiry into this and take tangible measures to prevent similar malpractices in the future.

COPA investigations have also revealed massive racket in the registration of ‘dual purpose’ vehicles. It revealed that as a result of corrupt elements since 2013 registering vehicles imported for special purposes as ‘dual purpose’ vehicles the Treasury lost taxes amounting to Rs 220 mn.

In addition to that the Treasury had been also deprived of taxes amounting to Rs 1.300 mn by not imposing Rs 3 mn each on 443 special vans brought to the country during 2010-2019 period.

COPA also stated that the Customs perpetrated another massive fraud by allowing the import of 10 vans and 414 lorries as special purpose vehicles during 2010-2014.

COPA reported the Customs imposing Rs 1.5 mn tax on a super luxury car instead of legitimate Rs 56 mn.

It revealed the loss of revenue to the tune of Rs 6.1 bn during 2013-2016 period due to the Customs adopting wrong procedure in respect of large quantities of palm oil imports by two enterprises. The watchdog committee has instructed the Customs to expedite measures to recover the dues from those companies.

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India reiterates commitment to Sri Lanka’s security

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India has reiterated her support for Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism. The assurance was made on the second anniversary of 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. The following is the text of statement issued by the Indian High Commission yesterday: “High Commissioner Gopal Baglay attended the solemn ceremony at St. Anthony’s Church on 21 April 2021 to mark the second anniversary of the dastardly Easter Sunday attacks. He lit a candle in memory of the victims of the attack and prayed for the recovery of those who are still suffering from its aftermath.

“It may be recalled that the High Commissioner had paid homage to the victims at the Church also on 23 May 2020, the first day after the completion of the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, subsequent to his arrival to Sri Lanka on 8 May 2020 on a special flight carrying a gift consignment of essential medical supplies from India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also paid his respects at the Church during the solidarity visit to Sri Lanka in June 2019.

“St. Anthony’s Church was one of the multiple targets of the Easter Sunday attacks, which also took away the lives of 10 Indians. These Indian victims fell prey to the perpetrators at Shangri-la, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand Hotels.  

India and Sri Lanka cooperate closely in all aspects across the security spectrum. India stands firmly with the people and Government of Sri Lanka in the fight against terrorism and also collaborate on curbing various other illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, narcotics, etc. “

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Explosive cargo: Ship carrying compound used for enrichment of uranium asked to leave H’tota port

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A ship that made an emergency call at the Hambantota International Port on Tuesday night (20) carrying Uranium hexafluoridea–a compound used in the process of enriching uranium, which produces fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons–has been asked to leave.

Chandula Rambukwella, Senior Manager, Commercial & Marketing, Hambantota International Port, issued the following statement yesterday: “M.V. BBC Naples sailing under the flag of “Antigua & Barbados” entered the port of Hambantota on 20th April at 2100 hrs, while en route from Rotterdam to China. The ship made an emergency call at the port for some urgent repairs. Agents for the vessel in Sri Lanka, Ms. Barwil Meridian Navigation, had not declared to the port authorities that there was dangerous cargo on board, prior to the vessel entering the port.

It was later found that they were carrying a cargo of Uranium Hexafluoride via investigations made by the Sri Lanka Navy and the Port Authority. The vessel was required to leave the port no sooner the facts were verified.

The SLPA, Navy, and Customs officials had approved all the necessary documentation prior to berthing of the vessel, based on the declaration made by the agent. The Navy and Customs were present at all times to ensure that there wasn’t any cargo unloaded onto the Hambantota International Port premises.”

 

 

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