Pearls Group chairman, top executives arrested

Two years after registering a case in the country's largest reported Ponzi scam, the Central Bureau of Investigation on Friday arrested Pearls Group chairman and managing director Nirmal Singh Bhangoo along with three others in connection with alleged swindling of Rs45,000 crore from over five crore investors who were lured with attractive-looking land deals.

''The arrest, which came after two years of CBI probe ordered by the Supreme Court, was preceded by long hours of questioning of Bhangoo and three other top executives of Pearls Group of companies," CBI sources said.

They said Bhangoo, CMD of Pearls Golden Forest Ltd (PGF) and ex-chairman of Pearls Australasia Pty Limited, along with Sukhdev Singh, MD and promoter-director of Pearls Agrotech Corporation Ltd (PACL), Gurmeet Singh, executive director (finance) and Subrata Bhattacharya, ED in the PGF/PACL, were confronted with documents purportedly contrary to their claims of clean business.

These people started changing their statements which were filled with inconsistencies, officials claimed, adding that such non-cooperation prompted the agency to arrest them so that custodial questioning can be done.

During the probe in the last two years, CBI has found 1,300 bank accounts of the suspect company, their directors, and associated firms. The agency has frozen assets (mostly fixed deposit receipts) to the tune of Rs280 crore and in addition Rs108 crore has been deposited with the Delhi High Court.

They said the agency has managed to seize 20,000 property documents believed to be of Rs5,000 crore of purchase value. It is estimated by CBI that these properties could be worth about Rs1.85 lakh crore by present market rates. The sources claimed that the group had interest in cricket and was the main sponsor in one of the leading teams playing in a cricket league in the country.

Owing to the interests in Australia, the sources said the group had hired a well-known pace bowler from that country as its brand ambassador. CBI Press Information Officer R K Gaur said Bhangoo along with Sukhdev Singh, Gurmeet Singh and Subrata Bhattacharya were arrested under charges of criminal conspiracy and cheating.

In its first information report, CBI has claimed that PACL and PGF were running schemes illegally and both the companies were allegedly engaged in fraudulent activities including forgery in their day-to-day operations.

Investigation also revealed that the accused persons fraudulently diverted the alleged funds collected under the aegis of Jaipur-based private company for purported investment in Australian companies. "So far AUD 132.99 million is found to have been diverted to Australian companies," Gaur said.

It was revealed that PGF, on being directed by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana to wind up the scheme and refund the money to the investors, a similar fraudulent scheme was operated under the name of PACL with office at Barakhamba Road in New Delhi, CBI had alleged in its FIR.

It alleged that funds collected from new investors of PACL were used to repay the earlier investors of PGF to stave off criminal prosecution. CBI further alleged funds have been raised by the two companies through a vast network of lakhs of commission agents spread all over the country who were being paid hefty commissions for luring the investors.