President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has suspended Youth Minister Ahmed Mahloof and a state minister over transactions conducted with a company that was used to funnel millions of dollars stolen from state coffers.
The top officials were named in a long-awaited report of an investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission into the theft of US$90 million from the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, a corruption scandal of unprecedented scale in Maldivian history.
According to the 776-page report released Thursday morning, Mahloof was among several politicians, lawmakers and prominent businesses who received large sums of money to their bank accounts from SOF Pvt Ltd, the company implicated in siphoning off the bulk of funds stolen from the MMPRC.
Mahloof was asked to stay home until an investigation was concluded, he confirmed in a tweet, adding that he respected the president’s decision.
State Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Akram Kamalludeen was also suspended after it emerged that he was paid US$30,000.
Prior to his suspension, Mahloof defended his dealings with SOF as a “legitimate currency exchange transaction.” He shared a receipt of the August 2014 payment of US$33,000 in exchange for MVR508,860.
The dollars were needed for The Jeans shop operated by his family and it was deposited to his account because the shop did not have a US dollar account, Mahloof said, noting that he was never questioned for the ACC probe.
Aside from Mahloof – who was a ruling party lawmaker at the time – it was revealed that SOF had also transferred money to the bank accounts of MPs Riyaz Rasheed, ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, and Hussain Manik Dhon Manik as well as the brother of MP Ahmed Nihan and the company accounts of MP Ahmed Saleem’s Red Wave supermarket franchise and Speaker Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Travels.
The lawmakers have denied wrongdoing. MP Riyaz Rasheed said the money was owed to his fuel supply company Meridiam Services and MP Hussain Manik insisted he bought dollars from SOF for unnamed colleagues in parliament.
Deputy Speaker Moosa Manik denied conducting any transactions with SOF. Speaker Gasim’s Villa Travels claimed to have paid in local currency to buy US$700,ooo from SOF.
– ‘Sacks of cash’ –
The release of the ACC report – which was dated July 2017 – came after growing calls to disclose the identities of people who benefitted from the country’s biggest corruption scandal.
The complicity of lawmakers was long suspected after one MP admitted to having carried “sacks of cash” to hand out bribes.
The MMPRC scandal was first exposed in a damning audit report released in February 2016, which implicated former vice president Ahmed Adeeb and his associates in siphoning off acquisition fees paid to lease islands for resort development.
Separate probes were launched by the ACC and the audit office following Adeeb’s arrest in late 2015 on suspicion of plotting to assassinate former president Abdulla Yameen.
In the wake of Yameen’s heavy defeat in September’s election, the ACC revealed that the scale of the MMPRC theft was bigger than estimated in the 2016 audit.
Of US$77.5 million worth of checks collected as resort acquisition costs, only US$12.5 million ended up in state coffers, the ACC found.
The rest was transferred to private bank accounts with the permission of the MMPRC’s managing director Abdulla Ziyath.
Ziyath is currently serving an eight-year sentence for the theft of US$5 million. He was convicted in 2016 along with then-tourism minister Adeeb, who was sentenced to 33 years on multiple counts of corruption and terrorism.
Some 57 islands and lagoons were leased through the MMPRC.
Yameen previously insisted the theft “did not reach higher than Adeeb,” although the former right-hand man was first implicated in embezzlement from state funds in October 2014 — more than a year before the second MMPRC corruption scandal came to light.
Following the release of the second audit, SOF said it provided a “brokerage” service to the MMPRC to distribute the funds as requested to the first couple and senior politicians.
Analysis of leaked statements of a US dollars bank account owned by SOF showed that more than MVR1.3 billion (US$84 million) was funnelled through the front company between May 2014 to October 2015.
In separate probes, the ACC is investigating whether bank employees were complicit in the scam as well as the failure of the central bank’s Financial Intelligence Unit to flag suspicious transactions.