“Secretary Mushtaque has been given three kgs, Tepa 15.” “Sabur and Jahangir have taken 5 kgs.” “When will you take your 6 kgs?”
These 'kgs' are no units of weight. These are actually coded words denoting bribes shared among top officials, including its managing director, of Titas Gas Transmission Company Limited, a state-owned gas distribution company. One 'kg' means Taka One Lakh or that is, Taka 100,000.
Titas’ officials use these codes among each other regarding bribes they extract in Gazipur, Savar, Bhaluka and Narayanganj distribution zones.
Alongside taking bribes themselves, they have created a class of middlemen to bring in the bribes. These middlemen directly deliver the bribes to the top officials.
Details of these underhand transactions were revealed in mobile phone text messages provided by a government agency, and also from the experiences of the victimised businesspersons and Prothom Alo investigations.
The mobile phone SMS texts were exchanged over a period of three months, covering September to November 2016. Though these SMS records are of three months, these bribes are extracted the year round. Prothom Alo took up a detailed investigation into the matter.
A syndicate has been created under the leadership of Titas’ current managing director Mir Mashiur Rahman, investigation confirmed. His main associate in all this is the manager of Titas’ pipeline design department Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury.
The others in the syndicate are named as manager Titas’ ECC department manager Mohammed Abu Bakr Siddiqur Rahman, Gazipur’s current general manager (currently GM, vigilance) SM Abdul Wadud and former company secretary, and current MD of the Sundarban Gas Distribution Company, Mushtaq Ahmed.
These incidents of bribery took place when Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury was manager of the Gazipur sales region and Abu Bakr Siddiqur Rahman was manager of the Tongi North system operation department.
Officials within Titas said the bribes were mainly taken for changing installations, providing clients with illegal gas connects, increasing illegal gas loads, providing unlawful facilities to use additional appliances, and providing selective promotions.
Titas is a distribution company of the country's Oil, Gas and Minerals Resources Corporation, popularly known as Petrobangla. According to records till 30 June 2017, the company has authority over 13,056 km of gas pipeline and 4,610 subscribers.
However, the syndicate targeted the owners of certain industrial units near Dhaka, in the Gazipur region. Most of these entities with Titas gas connections are located in the Gazipur zone.
Businesspersons, at a meeting on 23 April at the Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA) office, demanded that action be taken against corruption and bribery of the top Titas officials. BTMA director Mohammad Khorshed Alam said, “Titas’ harassment has made me ill.”
When asked about the bribes and corruption of the Titas officials, Supreme Court lawyer Tanjib-ul Alam, who deals in company law and IT, told Prothom Alo, “If these accusations against the Titas officials are proven to be true, they are to receive seven-year prison sentence in accordance with Section 5 (2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1947.”
He suggests that the relevant government departments should thoroughly investigate the asset details of the accused persons.
Energy and mineral resources secretary Abu Hena Md Rahmatul Muneem on Wednesday told Prothom Alo, “Titas’ thieves are always stealing. We can’t take action as they haven’t been caught out.”
Bribes deals over SMS
Mobile phone SMS texts reveal that of the bribes taken by Titas official Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury’s family, from Prodip Das, an engineer of the company AMC located in Gazipur, Tk 50 lakh (5 million) was paid on 13 October 2016. An SMS text message exchanged between Sabber and Prodip on that day reveals: At 8:27am Prodip texted to Sabber, addressing him as ‘boss’ and asking where he would deliver the money. At 9:13am, Sabber asked Prodip, “How many kg?”
On the same day at 9:22am Sabber wrote to Prodip: “Kg means amount.” A minute later Prodip told Sabber,” That’s why I need to talk. You just listen and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” At 9:54am Prodip wrote to Sabber, “In front of them say that the entire 50 has to be given by Sunday.” At 10:18 am Prodip wrote, “I will give 50.” On the same day at 3:30pm Prodip texted Sabber, “Boss, I gave bhabhi (referring to Sabber’s wife) 50. Please confirm.”
Prothom Alo tried for three months to call the mobile phone number which Prodip called on 13 October 2016 for all these exchanges with Sabber, but it is now turned off. Prothom Alo gathered his present number from AMC Knit Composite. The mobile phone operator records show he has been using this new number since 13 December 2017.
When an attempt was made to meet Prodip Das directly on 2 July this year at AMC Knit Composite in Baniarchala, Gazipur, the security guard Manik said he was inside, but ‘you will have to wait to meet him.’ After 30 minutes, the security guard came and said, ‘Sir (Prodip Das) has said he is busy.’ When a text message was sent to this present phone number regarding the reason of wanting to meet him, he replied that he was not Prodip Das.
When a call was made to AMC Knit’s MD Md Enamul Huq on 4 July, explaining why Prodip Das was being approached, he said that he would arrange Prodip to call back. However, since them Enamul Huq has also not being answering his phone.
Similarly, Mohammed Taimur, manager of Vielatex in Gazipur, paid Sabber on behalf of the company. On 24 October 2016 at 10:29am, Sabber messaged Taimur, “Give it all in one go. First deal complete please.” The next day on 25 October at 6:03pm Sabber said to him again, “Was this the final contract? Will I keep anything for you?” In the afternoon on the same day at 6:56pm he told Taimur again, “Try to give 50. I will come to Dhaka tomorrow. You can give 20 tomorrow. The other 10 is yours.”
On 20 May Taimur of Vielatex told Prothom Alo, “We are very upset about this matter. It is no secret how a class of officials at Titas hold us hostage to extract bribes.”
According to information of the government agency, two contractors enlisted with Titas, Saiful Islam and Swapan, were also involved in delivering bribes to Sabber, from which they would get a cut too. For example, the Mahmud Group has three companies, Mahmud Denim, Mahmud Fashion and Dong Bang. Contractor Saiful Islam paid Sabber Tk 20 lakh (2 million) from Mahmud Fashion in Gazipur. Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury received Tk 1 crore 50 lakh (15 million) from Mahmud Group’s MD Aminul Islam through Saiful Islam in order to provide a connection from Titas’ main transmission line to Dong Bang. Saiful Islam received a share of this amount. Dong Bang has still not been given the gas connection.
The present general manager (GM vigilance) in charge of Gazipur, SM Abdul Wadud, took Tk 20 lakh (2 million) from Gazipur’s Binoda Textiles. In the meantime, Sabber and Siddiqur Rahman tried to arrange gas connections from the Titas transmission line to two companies, NRG and AT&T. Also, Sabber would go as far as to warn subscribers in advance if any illegal connection was to be severed. For instance, one of his text messages to Pradip Das read, “Vigilance team is in the field. So be alert and keep in touch.”
Bribe talk on brother’s phone
The Grameen Phone SIM card used by Sabber for his unscrupulous negotiations belonged to his brother Sajjad Ahmed Chowdhury. Sajjad Ahmed Chowdhury is the MD and director of a firm, Westcam International. Westcam is an ITP chemical sales company.
Westcam was registered with the Office of the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms on 29 March 2012. Though its approved capital was Tk 3 crore (30 million), its paid-up capital was Tk 60 lakh (6 million). During registration of the company, Sajjad Ahmed Chowdhury and his brother Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury’s wife Rumana Rishat Zaman, Syed Zahid Parvez and Subrata Paul were directors, purchasing 15,000 shares each at the rate of Tk 100 per share. Subrata Paul was MD at the time. Their mobile numbers were all of the same series.
The international mobile phone equipment identity (IMEI) number used by Sabber for his bribe negotiations was in his wife’s name. On 25 September 2014, Subrata Paul handed over 15,000 shares of 5,000 each to the three and Sajjad became the new MD. When asked, Sajjad Ahmed Chowdhury said his brother Sabber used to use that phone number before, but not anymore.
In a cryptic SMS sent to contractor Swapan at 10:12am on October 2016, Sabber wrote, “55-24=31. That is 10.5 for you, 10.5 for me, 10 for MD and Siddique. So you will give me 20.5.” On the same day at 10:15am, Swapan texted Sabber, “All right, but where will I deliver the money?” Four minutes later, Swapan told Sabber, “I’m delivering it to bhabi.”
In an SMS sent to Mir Mashiur Rahman at 1:14pm on 27 November 2016, Sabber wrote, “Sir, your 140 kg (other than Noman’s 50 and Kader’s 1).” The code 140 kg meant Tk 1 crore 40 lakh (14 million). That means the MD’s share would have to be handed over to Sabber, the share amounting to over one crore."
The SMS text messages indicate that the bribes were also for postings and promotions. Persons involved in the bribe syndicate were placed in key posts. In an SMS text, Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury wrote to Abu Bakr Siddiqur Rahman, “You 36.5, MD 140 and Noman 50.” In another text message on 24 November 2016 at 9:53 am, Sabber asked Abu Bakr Siddiqur Rahman, “How much of the MD’s amount do you have?” Again, in a message to contractor Swapan, Sabber gives a breakdown of the payment -- “MD 4, me 6, you 5.”
When contacted over phone on Wednesday, Swapan admitted to being a contractor with Titas, but said he was not a go-between for bribes. When he was told that Prothom Alo has information that he delivered money to Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury’s wife at their home, he said he did not know anyone by the name of Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury.
On 25 October 2016 at 3:28pm, Sabber sent the same SMS text to two of the numbers of the MD, stating, “Sir, the vigilance team found excess load. They shouldn’t cut the line. We are dealing with the customer.” Titas later didn’t sever the company’s line.
Even though he is a subordinate officer, Sabber’s closeness to the MD is apparent in an SMS text sent to him by the MD: “We will meet at our hangout.” In other messages to the MD, Sabber wrote, “Arrange the posting of Sumon Das (Savar zone deputy manager) please.” “Ask ATI, SM Knitting, Elegant Washing, director operations to approve the drill file.” “We have already taken the Mahmud Group work.” “Release the Binoda reconnection.” Sir, I’ve asked them to hold up the work. Will discuss later.” “Sir, unless you say ‘okay’, I don’t understand whether you have received the SMS or not.”
The MD is mentioned by others too. For example, in a message to Sabber on 27 September 2016, Abu Bakr Siddiqur asked how much should he negotiate for with Paragon (a company). The next day on 28 September Siddiqur wrote to Sabber again, “Paragon’s bag and file is with me. How much will I ask for the MD about the Paragon reconnection?”
On 18 October 2016, in an SMS to Abu Bakr Siddiqur Rahman, Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury said, “I’ll need 25 kg of apples tomorrow.” Siddiqur replied, “Forget it. Do you have any lack of money?”
Prothom Alo spoke to manager Abu Bakr Siddiqur Rahman at the Titas office on 3 July. He denied having taking bribes. When told about the date and text of the SMS messages, he said, “I do not remember any such SMS texts. And the Paragon files are not supposed to come to me and they didn’t come to me either.”
Further conversations on bribes
Some significant text message exchanges between Saber and Titas officials, contractors and private firms who have received gas connections, include: “Me 6, you 4. Your due was 2, so pay me 4.”
Other messages read: “My man is at the head office with the advance payment and file. How much do I get? 45?” “Saiful has been given 10 lakh (1 million), another 20 (2 million) will be paid tomorrow.” “For audit and Petrobangla you will pay 1 lakh (0.10 million).” “Secretary Mushtaque has been given 3 kg, Tepa 15, 17 taken from the ATI bag.” Sabur and Jahangir have taken 4 kg.” “When will you take your 6kg?” “No need to count, it may be 7.” “6 from the MD’s kgs, 5 to SABD, 10 to the director.” “Give 4 from 181 kg.”
Also, “Your file has been approved. Saiful will go to you tomorrow. Pay Tk 1 crore (10 million) for the office expenses in approving it.” “I’ll meet you at your convenience tomorrow and take my 10.” Titas sources say this was about a company’s application for a Titas gas line connection.
It wasn’t possible to identify Sabur, Jahangir, Tepa, Noman and Kader. However, Prothom Alo spoke to a contractor on 26 June. On condition of anonymity, he said, he had worked for three years as a middleman between Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury and certain companies. He would get commission from both sides. Once the negotiations were final, he would deliver the money to a house in an upscale residential area of Dhaka. Work has slowed down for about a year.
When contacted about the bribes and corruption, Sabber advised that this correspondent through an SMS text on 11 April to contact Titas’ ECC department manager Abu Bakr Siddiqur. After about a month’s efforts of trying to meet Sabber, he was finally tracked down on 15 October at a five-star hotel lobby in the city. When he was given details of the dates and messages concerning the bribery, Sabber told Prothom Alo, “This is all a conspiracy. Ask those who claim to have paid the bribes.”
When the current Titas MD Mir Mashiur Rahman was approached in his office on 23 April this year about the allegation of taking bribes, he denied it outright: “Allah has given me more than enough. How much money does one need in one lifetime? Why should I take bribes?”
When faced with the allegations that he took a cut of the bribes and there is proof of such accusations, Mir Mashiur Rahman said, “The basis on which you are saying this is not correct. Someone is working against us.” When asked why anyone would do so, he replied, “Perhaps someone isn’t getting a good posting.”
Businessmen, experts seek end to corruption
At the meeting held in the BTMA office on 23 April this year, former president of the association Matin Chowdhury also said, “Titas has to be paid a few extra crore taka for gas connections. The Titas people are so organised, nothing can be done against them.”
Quoting information from an intelligence report, Khandakar Salek Sufi, former director of a gas transmission company, told a meeting held at Dhaka Club on 4 May, the amount of gas pilfered from Titas every month would be enough to generate 1,000 MW of electricity and provide a few hundred factories with gas connections.
Officials with Titas who have a clean image, say if the pilferage could have been halted, they would have been able to receive higher profit bonuses and the government would have received more revenue.
Supreme Court lawyer who works with IT law, Anik R Huq, told Prothom Alo, “The bribery of these top Titas officials tarnishes the image of the government too. The government should look into the mater seriously and ensure punishment of those proven to be guilty.”
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB)’s executive director Iftekharuzzaman told Prothom Alo, “These serious allegations against the top officials of Titas show that its system of control and monitoring is ineffective. It would not be surprising if influential political persons are involved in this too.”
Iftekharuzzaman suggests that the energy and mineral resources department investigates this organised corruption and takes departmental actions against those proven to be guilty. And the Anti-Corruption Commission can carry out its own investigations and dig out deeper evidence.
* This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.