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Pursuing the truth: Satyam
January, 07th 2011

As anniversaries go, this is not a happy one. Two years ago, this day, Mr Ramalinga Raju, then Chairman, Satyam Computer Services, confessed to a massive Rs 7,136-crore fraud perpetrated by him on the company over many years. The scandal shook Corporate India to its roots and even galvanised the government, not exactly known for acting with alacrity, to quickly supersede the existing Board of Satyam with its own nominees in an effort to save the company.

Well, we all know what happened after that. The good men on the government-appointed Board worked tirelessly through a maze of legal suits and other complications to salvage Satyam and eventually sell it off to Tech Mahindra through a transparent bidding process.

And we all also know what happened to Mr Raju. He surrendered soon after and was arrested and lodged in jail before he found his way to the hospital ostensibly afflicted with hepatitis C. He spent months in hospital before securing bail in July last from the Andhra Pradesh High Court along with his erstwhile CFO, Srinivas Vadlamani, and three others. His liberty was short-lived though, as the Supreme Court upheld an appeal from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is investigating the case, to cancel the bail and eventually, Mr Raju found himself back in jail by November.

Unanswered questions

If that is what we know about the Satyam scandal, the more important stuff is the unknown. What is the true extent of the scam? Is it just Rs 7,136 crore or much more than that?

How did Mr Raju manage to perpetrate the fraud over many years right under the nose of the auditors and also his Board, peopled by eminent personalities such as Harvard professors, Dr Krishna Palepu, and Ms Mangalam Srinivasan and Vinod Dham?

Where has the pilfered money gone? Was Mr Raju acting alone or were there others, including politicians, who partook of the illegal feast?

What role did the auditors play in the scandal? Were they caught unawares, as they claim, or were they part of the scandal?

It is sad indeed that two years after the scandal broke, the answers to these questions still remain a mystery. The powers-that-be, it should be granted, have played their cards well. By rescuing Satyam, the company, from imminent collapse and selling it to a strong business group, the government blunted the impact of the scandal on the corporate sector (particularly, the IT industry) and on the markets.

Even as that helped earn immense praise for itself, the government managed to turn the focus off the other, equally important aspect of the scandal the whys and wherefores of Mr Raju's shenanigans.

Learn from US

As has been pointed out in these columns before, this is where we need to learn from the US, which has had its fair quota of corporate and market scandals. Whether it was Jeffrey Skilling of Enron or Bernard Madoff, to name just two of the biggest scandals that hit America last decade, justice was meted out quickly. While Skilling, the former President of Enron, was convicted in 2006 to 24 years in jail, Madoff was handed out a 150-year sentence in June 2009, within three months of his pleading guilty. Allen Stanford, who was accused of fraud and running a Ponzi scheme, was promptly arrested in June 2009 and his trial is to start this month.

If the government has been slow on this front, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), which is responsible for the professional conduct of its members, has also been remiss in not quickly investigating Price Waterhouse, Satyam's auditors, during the scandal period.

The ICAI's Disciplinary Committee, tasked with the job of scrutinising the possible negligence or acquiescence of the auditors in the scandal, has yet to come out with any recommendations for action. One would have expected the professional body to act with alacrity in order to clear the image of not just the members in question but the larger profession itself, which has been badly sullied by the scandal.

Thanks to ICAI's vacillation, the market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), stepped in to investigate Price Waterhouse on its own. The latter went to court questioning SEBI's jurisdiction, only to be snubbed, and it now seems as if SEBI will slap penalties on the audit firm well before the ICAI can even come out with its findings. If that indeed happens, the ICAI will find its authority significantly undermined and it will have none but itself to blame for that.

In the current season of scams, the Satyam scandal might rank low in priority. Rs 7,136 crore, the estimated value of the fraud, appears small in the face of the Rs 1,76,000-crore 2G scam, and public memory is short anyway. Yet, it is important that we get to the bottom of the scandal and mete out exemplary punishment to all those involved, if only to prevent similar ones in the future.

That is why the proceedings of the fast-track trial court, which began hearing the Satyam case on November 8, become important. The CBI has already submitted more than 10,000 documents to the court and witnesses have started deposing before it.

With the Supreme Court setting July this year as the date for completing the trial, there is reason to hope that the truth will be out and the guilty punished, bringing to an end a most sordid chapter in Corporate India's history.

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