Feb 20, 2018

In PNB Scam, 3 More Arrested, Centre Reportedly Says RBI “Failure”

The three officials - who the police accuses of supervisory lapses - are slightly more senior than the two PNB employees who were arrested by police and taken before a court over the weekend.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested three more employees of the Punjab National Bank or PNB on Monday over the Rs. 11,400 crore loan fraud case involving celebrity jeweller Nirav Modi. The arrests came as the government said the scandal exposed a “supervisory failure” by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), media reports said.

The police have said that two previously arrested bank employees colluded with the billionaire jeweller and his uncle Mehul Choksi to issue fraudulent letters of guarantee, which the businessmen used to raise loans from overseas Indian banks over a seven year period.

Two officers looking after the foreign exchange department of the state-run bank and another who was responsible for checking communications on the SWIFT messaging platform were picked up in the latest swoop by the CBI.

The three officials – who the police accuses of supervisory lapses – are slightly more senior than the two PNB employees who were arrested by police and taken before a court over the weekend. In all, six people have been arrested so far.

The arrests came as the ripples from India’s biggest banking scam continued on Monday. The finance ministry pointed a finger at the Reserve Bank of India for failing to pick up the fraud, which took place at a single branch of PNB in Mumbai, according to media reports.

The government has written a letter to the RBI saying the failure to detect the fraud raised questions about its “efficacy of supervision to detect and check systemic failure”, financial news provider NewsRise and other media reports said.

“Either the framework designed by RBI to prevent and detect such frauds is inadequate or RBIis unable to ensure is effective implementation,” they quoted the letter as saying.

The RBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday, which was a holiday in Mumbai. A finance ministry spokesman declined comment, news agency Reuters said.

Rajeev Kumar, the top government bureaucrat overseeing banks, told Reuters in New Delhi the finance ministry had written to the country’s banks to take effective steps to avoid a repeat of a PNB-like fraud. Mr Kumar declined to comment if the government had written to the RBI.

The Enforcement Directorate has also asked the RBI for its audit reports as part of its probe.

The three bank officials arrested on Monday were Bechhu Tiwari, a chief manager in charge of the foreign exchange department; Yashwant Joshi, a manager in the same department; and Praful Sawant, another bank officer, according to a source at the CBI. The executives were not immediately available for comments.

The police have also issued look out-notices for Nirav Modi and for Mehul Choksi, who heads jewellery retailer Gitanjali Gems Ltd and other companies, both of whom are overseas.

One of Mr Modi’s employees was arrested over the weekend and on Monday CBI agents carried out another search of the bank branch to gather evidence, the CBI source said.

Mr Modi, who counts Hollywood stars such as Kate Winslet and Dakota Johnson among his clients, has not commented on the allegations. The police have said he and his family left India before PNB filed a complaint on the alleged fraud.

Mr Choksi has also not commented, and police have said he also left India last month.

PNB shares slid for a fourth straight day on Monday, closing 7.2 percent lower. The sell-off has wiped out about $1.7 billion, or more than a quarter of the bank’s market value, since it disclosed the fraud last Wednesday.

Shares of Choksi’s Gitanjali Gems fell 9.9 percent after its chief financial officer and company secretary resigned on Monday.

In a letter shared with stock exchanges, the company secretary, Pankhuri Warange, said she was resigning because of the company’s lack of disclosure despite her advice to be forthcoming.


Other bank stocks with exposure to the suspect transactions, which PNB says began in 2011, also fell.

UCO Bank, another state-run lender that has said it had nearly Rs. 2,600 crore in exposure to the fraudulent transactions carried out at PNB, closed 5.3 per cent down.

Among other lenders which have said they had exposure to the transactions, Union Bank of India fell 7.4 percent and State Bank of India closed down 1.2 percent.

Including direct loans given to companies of Mr Modi and Mr Choksi, Indian banks may be liable for more than Rs. 20,000 crore, according to an internal tax department note seen by Reuters.

The finance ministry however tweeted that that the valuation was “false and factually incorrect”. A finance ministry spokesman said the tax department had not submitted any formal note on the investigation yet.