In two separate cases in the city, three men claiming to be RTI activists were arrested on Saturday for allegedly extorting money from builders, police said.
A senior police officer said a "well-organised racket" has been in operation in Thane for the last few years, and filing of RTI queries in order to extort money from builders has become their business.
The three accused, including a former NCP corporator of Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) who is presently a BJP worker, were arrested by the Anti Extortion Cell (AEC) of Thane police.
Talking to reporters, Thane AEC chief senior inspector Pradeep Sharma said, "Two affected builders came forward and lodged complaints separately at Kasarwadavali and Mumbra police stations against six persons, including the three arrested."
In the first case, former NCP corporator Sudhir Barge was arrested for allegedly extorting Rs 5 lakh from a prominent builder and demanding another Rs 45 lakh from him, police said.
As per the complaint, Sudhir Barge came to the company's site office in Thane saying he was an RTI activist and alleged that the builder had carried out unauthorised construction. He demanded Rs 50 lakh from to hush up the matter and threatened that if money was not paid, he would complain.
"The company said it paid Rs 5 lakh to Barge and did not report the matter to police earlier fearing that he would file a false complaint against it," police said.
Two of Sudhir Barge's associates were also charged in the case registered at Kasarwadavali police station.
In the second case, two men were arrested for allegedly extorting money from a builder, who also carries out civil works for the civic body.
The accused, Arif Iraqi Nawaz Mohammad Mustafa and Shoukat Mulani, allegedly threatened to file Right to Information pleas with the TMC to harass and extort money from this builder in Mumbra township in Thane, police said.
According to officials, the builder, in his complaint claimed that the accused demanded Rs 5 lakh extortion on various occasions since August 2016 and he had also paid the accused Rs 3 lakh once.
Talking about the modus operandi of the accused in such cases, Mr Sharma said, "It is a well organised racket. Their business is to extort money from the builders who come from Mumbai and carry out their work in Thane. Their code word is 'Welcome to Thane'."
"The racket has been in operation since the last few years now. These people first file an RTI query with the civic authorities and then threaten the victims of dire consequences," he added.
"Filing of RTI queries has become their business and each one of them has filed at least 1,700-1,800 RTIs. They demand money and if it is not paid they file a PIL in the court. Once there is a settlement, the PIL is withdrawn. Their demands vary...they demand in crores and they settle for a lesser amount after negotiations," Sharma said.
"Later, they pass on the same information to other activists who also follow the same procedure to extort money from builders. A well-organised syndicate operates in this manner," he added.
The officer said police were questioning many people in this connection.
"Police will check all the RTIs filed by the members of the syndicate and also seek report from the TMC as to which departments they filed the RTI queries. We will carry out a thorough investigation into this racket," Mr Sharma said.
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