India’s Supreme Court gave the government 10 days to reply to a petition from Ratan Tata that seeks to prevent further disclosure of recorded phone conversations between him and a public relations executive.
Judges in the apex court asked the home secretary, Central Bureau of Investigation, the tax department and other government agencies to respond by Dec. 13 to the Tata Group chairman’s request, which includes demands for a probe into the leaking of some audio tapes featuring the calls, and an amendment to laws on phone-tapping.
“Some of the audio files are personal in nature and they should not have been published in the media,” Harish Salve, the lawyer for Tata, whose acquisitions of Jaguar Land Rover and Tetley Group Plc charted India’s emergence as a global economic power, said today. “They are unrelated to the matter under investigation.”
Niira Radia, the public relations official whose firm represents the Tata Group, is being investigated by India’s tax department over allegations of tax evasion and money laundering, court documents show. The phone taps were part of the probe.
Transcripts of Radia’s conversations with Tata and a host of politicians, corporate leaders and journalists were published by two Indian news magazines -- Open and Outlook -- as part of investigations into lobbying before the 2009 reappointment of Andimuthu Raja as telecommunications minister.
Raja, whose own calls with Radia have also been leaked to the media, resigned two days before the country’s chief auditor said in a Nov. 16 report to parliament a subsequent sale of wireless telephony licenses at below-market rates may have lowered government revenues by $31 billion.
In separate hearings, the Supreme Court today criticized Raja for ignoring advice from the law ministry and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over the sale. Singh’s office Nov. 20 filed an affidavit with the court rejecting allegations he had put off bringing charges against Raja.
Opposition lawmakers have stalled parliament for three weeks demanding a cross-party probe into the Raja episode.
It’s the second time this year that phone-tapping has snagged Singh’s government.
In April, Outlook magazine reported that sophisticated equipment meant to track terrorist groups had been used to intercept and record phone conversations of leading members of the ruling Congress party and others. Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram denied ordering secret taps.
Interception of telephones is permissible under a section of the Indian Telegraph Act once agreed by the federal home secretary or officials heading home departments in each of the country’s states. They are supposed to be used in the interest of public safety or to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.
Tax Board Probe
The Central Board of Direct Taxes, which had ordered the interception of Radia’s phone, is looking into the alleged leaking of the tapes, Chidambaram said on Nov. 30.
Radia said in a statement last week that she and her company Vaishnavi Corporate Communications are “complying and cooperating” with investigating agencies and that certain reports in the media were “baseless and misleading.”
Prashant Bhushan, a top court lawyer who is investigating irregularities in the sale of mobile-phone airwaves in 2008, defended the releasing of recorded conversations to the media when the aim was to highlight failures in government policy.
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