New Delhi: The Supreme Court has ruled that PJ Thomas' appointment as Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) is illegal. His removal comes at a time when the government is being taken to task by the Opposition for a glut of corruption scandals. (Read: Who is PJ Thomas?) "I respect the Supreme Court's judgement," said the Prime Minister to NDTV. He said he will make a statement in Parliament on the controversy.
Dr Manmohan Singh is now in the direct line of fire of the Opposition since he headed the committee that chose Mr Thomas.
Mr Thomas was selected in September by the Prime Minister and Home Minister. The third member of the committee, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, had objected strongly because Mr Thomas is accused of corruption himself in a criminal case that goes back to the early 90s, when he was a senior bureaucrat in Kerala.
Like Ms Swaraj, the Supreme Court has stressed during the trial that Mr Thomas cannot be in charge of fighting corruption as the Central Vigilance Commissioner when his own integrity is being questioned. Today, in its judgement, the court said, "The touchstone for the appointment of the CVC is the institutional integrity as well as the personal integrity of the candidate." The judges, headed by Chief Justice Kapadia, did clarify that they were not questioning Mr Thomas' personal integrity.
The government, in its defense, had argued in court that the biodata for Mr Thomas considered by the PM did not refer to the corruption charges against him. The Supreme Court has rejected that stand, stating that the committee headed by the PM should have "gone beyond the documents" presented to it.
The court also said that the government was incorrect in suggesting that because the post of Chief Vigilance Commissioner is a constitutional one, the Supreme Court is not entitled to review the appointment. The court said that while the government "is not accountable to the courts in respect of policy decisions...however, they are accountable for the legality of such decisions." (Supreme Court judgement on CVC: Read full text) - Courtesy Supreme Court website
Ms Swaraj, who has voiced her opposition to Mr Thomas' appointment at different public forums, tweeted after the verdict this morning, "The dignity of the office of CVC has been restored." The Left and the BJP now also want a debate in Parliament on why the government insisted on Mr Thomas as its choice.
As Food Secretary in Kerala in the early 90s, Mr Thomas campaigned aggressively for the import of edible oil from Malaysia. It later emerged that the price paid for the oil - palmolein - was unjustifiably high. He has since been charged with corruption and conspiracy.
Those charges are the reason why his appointment has been challenged in the Supreme Court by different Public Interest Litigation cases.
Mr Thomas had repeatedly told the court that the fact that he was promoted over the last few years by the Vigilance Commission proves that the charges against him are incorrect and should not affect his career.
The 71-page verdict written by Justice Kapadia noted that in addition to the pending corruption case against Mr Thomas, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) had repeatedly recommended "penalty proceedings" against him between 2000 and 2004. The PM's committee, the court said, had overlooked these black marks in Mr Thomas' record.
Mr Thomas' exit comes at a time when the government has been bruised black and blue by a steady stream of scams. Leading that list is the 2G spectrum scam which pushed A Raja from the Telecom Minister's office into jail. Mr Raja stands accused of abusing his position and manipulating government policies to award licences for mobile networks at throwaway prices to companies that rewarded him privately with huge kickbacks.
Mr Thomas was Telecom Secretary till he was made Central Vigilance Commissioner. The Supreme Court, which is also monitoring the CBI's investigation into the spectrum scam, suggested that it would be inappropriate for Mr Thomas to preside over an inquiry that could subject his own actions in the Telecom Ministry to scrutiny. Mr Thomas then recused himself from the 2G investigation.
New guidelines for choosing Central Vigilance Commissioner
In its judgement today, the Supreme Court has provided guidelines for all future appointments of government secretaries and constitutional posts.
Based on Mr Thomas' case, committee members who dissent or over-rule dissent must explain their reasons. Any relevant information should not be withheld from the selection committee. Civil servants should not alone be considered for these positions. "All the civil servants and other persons empanelled shall be outstanding civil servants or persons of impeccable integrity," the court said.