Charity Commissioner (CC) M K Choure, who invoked the Official Secrets Act to deny information to the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP), on Tuesday agreed to give a hearing to the trustees on September 29.
The BPP, which looks after the welfare of Parsis and is the city’s largest private landlord, had filed an application before the CC, challenging his earlier order to pay up Rs 1.2 crore for a special audit or face suspension. The trustees contended that Choure had issued them a show-cause notice even without hearing their application.
As reported by TOI in its Monday edition, Choure took cover under the Officials Secrets Act to deny a copy of his preliminary inquiry report against the BPP when the trustees asked for it. The CC had ordered this inquiry following a complaint lodged last year by a member of the Alert Zoroastrian Association, Percy Patel, who alleged malpractices in the punchayat.
Choure was expected to pass orders to suspend the seven trustees on Tuesday after they refused to pay this fee; the trustees contended that the BPP was a charitable organisation and such funds were largely meant for welfare of poor Parsis. The CC, however, stated that the BPP trustees were trying to obfuscate the special audit and were not cooperating with the demands made by his office.
During the hearing on Tuesday, BPP advocate Percy Gandhi submitted that the CC could not decide the case without hearing their side. The BPP submitted that Choure did not take cognisance of its application of August 17, challenging his order to immediately shell out Rs 1.2 crore as fee to M/s Nimesh Mehta & Associates for the special audit of the BPP’s accounts between 1998 and 2008. The trustees objected to this and pointed out that this worked out to Rs 11 lakh per annum, the audit fees charged by the BPP’s own auditor, M/s Kalyaniwalla & Mistry, charged just Rs 90,000 a year including taxes and out-of-pocket expenses.
"If the CC has found any irregularities in his preliminary report, then he should show it to us before he orders a special audit and directs the BPP to pay Rs 1.2 crore as fees,” Gandhi submitted. He argued that according to Supreme Court judgements, the trustees had every right to know factually as to what the CC’s preliminary investigations done in December 2008, had unearthed.
"All allegations could be satisfactorily dealth with and suitable explanations can be given to the CC, but he must give a report of the findings. The present trustees were elected just 10 months ago, and therefore did not even know about any of the alleged wrong doings of the previous board,” argued Gandhi.
The BPP counsel also questioned the time-frame of the special audit ordered by the CC and protested that even under tax law, the investigations are for a seven year period. "So, on what basis had the CC ordered a special audit for 11 years?” he asked.
In its application to the CC on August 17, the BPP argued that in spite of the Right To Information Act, which paved the way for transparency and accountability in governance, the CC had made an attempt to rely upon the Official Secrets Act. "Once Right To Information Act is made applicable, there remains hardly any scope to say that the Official Secrets Act of 1923 will be applicable to the present case,” said the application.
The punchayat is expected to move the Bombay high court soon.