Pillars of Sand Part 1: The Gupta temple and the man-on-top loader
A R200m temple, built in honour of the Gupta brothers' late father, Shiv, was erected in their home town of Saharanpur using money laundered through several of the Gupta brothers' Indian and Dubai companies.
In March this year, Indian revenue authorities raided several of the Gupta brothers' properties on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.
The temple was among these properties.
Despite the Guptas themselves footing the bill for the construction of the temple, a local Indian politician, Mansoor Badar, and Sanjay Grover, a known Gupta lieutenant in Dubai, were used as the "donors" of the money earmarked for the temple's construction.
In this multi-part investigation, we consider how the Gupta family laundered money using companies set up in Dubai and India, freeing them up to fund the temple's construction.
First stop: Saharanpur
Construction started on the Shiva Dham temple, located in the northern outskirts of the Gupta brothers' hometown of Saharanpur, in June 2014. The temple complex consists of several buildings, including the main temple itself, and a hall designed by architectural firm Trivedi Corporation in India.
The temple was still under construction in January this year.
And while documents in the Gupta leaks claim that Badar and Grover are the sole funders of the temple's construction, at least a portion of the donations were bankrolled by the Guptas themselves, making fools of Indian revenue authorities in the process.
To get the money into India, the Guptas needed a plan. The Gupta leaks show that Tony Gupta expressed an interest in establishing the family's own religious trust early in 2014. The Guptas also discussed ways of transferring money out of the country with their auditors at the time, KPMG.
"We also note there is a desire to investigate the feasibility of transferring funds off-shore, especially to India, to be utilised as religious donations (as part of funding to build the temple in the vicinity of your home town in India) as well as for business purposes," wrote Muhammad Saloojee, director and head of corporate tax at KPMG, on June 30, 2014.
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Between June 2014 and December 2014, the family appeared to have abandoned establishing their own trust and focused on using an existing religious trust instead. The Gupta leaks show that the temple's construction was overseen and paid for by an entity called Sh Siv Mandir Gor Sankar Vishwana Banunth Dham & Samsa Bumi Prabndak Saba (the Siv Mandir trust), a religious trust founded in 1990. The Siv Mandir trust was responsible for paying service providers and labourers for the construction of the temple.
The reasoning behind using a trust was economic: in terms of Indian tax laws, a religious trust can apply for favourable treatment of its own income as well as any donations made by its funders.
On December 10, 2014, Atul and Tony Gupta drafted a letter on behalf of their mother, the Gupta matriarch Angoori Gupta. The letter begged the Indian revenue authorities to grant the Siv Mandir trust exemptions from certain tax regimes.
"This temple is being constructed at the total project cost of Rs 100 Crores (about R180m), the donation for which will be contributed by all individual persons in Saharanpur and [a] major portion of this donation will come from Smt Angoori Devi Gupta and her family members and friends from all over the world.
"Trust has also applied for Income Tax Exemptions u/s 12 A of [Income] Tax Act and will also apply for exemption u/s 80 G of Income Tax Act. Once these exemptions are granted by the appropriate authority’s donation [sic] from all across the world will start flowing in."
The letter was addressed to the tourism minister in Uttar Pradesh, the province of the Guptas' hometown of Saharanpur, appealing to the minister to intervene with the tax authorities.
The letter makes it clear that the Guptas intended funding the construction of the temple using donations from their "friends and family".
With a tax efficient and opaque trust set up to receive its donations, the Guptas could begin funding it.
Funnelling the funds
The Gupta leaks show that the temple had two intended sources of income. The first funder was Badar, a municipal councillor in Saharanpur. Badar was earmarked to provide Rs 23 million (rupees) towards the construction of the temple.
As part of the donation, Badar was required to submit a letter containing very specific wording to the revenue authorities. The accountant for the family's businesses in India, Ashok Khandelwal, drafted an example of the letter to be used.
Khandelwal initially denied any role in the funding of the temple construction.
"Without going into the merits of your allegations, we have absolutely nothing to do with the so-called Temple construction with which you are trying to associate our name," he wrote in an email.
"We would have no problems if you were publishing the truth, but publishing false stories without any facts should not be done. If you have any evidence, of our involvement in this, kindly share the details of the same with us before publishing the story in order for us to respond, because your inference of the information, if any, that you have seems to be absolutely wrong."
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Khandelwal failed to respond when confronted with a copy of the donation letter he drafted. He also failed to clarify why he drafted the letter under instructions from Gupta family associates if the donor was Badar, an apparently unrelated party. Instead, Khandelwal threatened legal action on the basis of defamation and blackmail in response to the questions posed.
Badar's motivation appears to have been political. In December 2014, Gupta lieutenant Ashu Chawla received two letters introducing Badar to the leader of a local political organisation. The letters, which had to be translated, introduce Badar to the leader of the Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav, and propose Badar as an ideal candidate for the elections to be held the following year.
Both Yadav and Badar also attended the Gupta family’s infamous Waterkloof wedding in 2013. Attempts to reach either Yadav or Badar for comment have been met with no response.
But Badar was not about to use his own money to fund the temple, and this is where the laundromat kicked in. The Gupta leaks indicate how it worked.
By making several back-to-back payments, the true source of the funding would be hidden behind several layers of transactions. All of these companies are either under the direct control of Gupta family members, or their close associates.
The next day the cycle is repeated. ITJ Retails pays LCR Investments, who in turn pays Anil Gupta. Anil Gupta arranges for the funds to be transferred by unknown means to Badar, who in turn pays ITJ Retails.
This cycle was repeated for several days until about Rs 21 million was paid towards ITJ Retails by Badar.
But the trick lies herein: Badar never paid ITJ Retails. By skipping the last link in the chain, Badar would in effect "borrow" the money from ITJ Retails by not paying it over. This was confirmed by the balance sheet for ITJ Retails, which showed that as at March 4, 2014, Badar was owed exactly Rs 23 million, the same amount contained in the planned budget for the temple.
The modus operandi becomes even clearer in another string of transactions or journal entries ordered a year later.
On March 6, 2015, another Gupta lieutenant, Suresh Tuteja, again requested that several payments be reflected, either as transactions or journal entries in the books of the affected entities. Among these payments was Rs 17.6 million that Akash Khandelwal, the accountant-on-call for the Guptas, was to receive from "Sanjay ji". This presumably referred to Sanjay Grover, the former Gupta associate in Dubai.
This amount would then be transferred to ITJ Retails, who would in turn "repay" Badar the Rs 23 million he borrowed ITJ Retails. Badar would then make a Rs 23 million payment to "Temple".
Akash Khandelwal denied that he received or made any such payments, but would not explain why these payment instructions would be made using his name as the recipient of the money to be paid to ITJ Retails.
The entries also showed that the "Temple" would in turn be used to settle a vehicle loan for the benefit of SES Technologies, another Gupta-linked company that will feature prominently in the next instalment.
We can now trace a trail from the temple trust to Badar and eventually LCR Investments and SES Technologies.
The source of the money received from LCR Investments and SES is a bit murkier. But the Gupta leaks show how these companies were used to launder money paid from several overseas sources.
The first of these sources were donations paid by the Gupta family from South Africa. In late 2013, Rajesh Gupta, his wife Aarti, and Atul's wife, Shivani, each gifted R1m to their sister in India, Achlia.
Achlia Gupta is the sister of brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh, and is married to the same Anil Gupta mentioned above that provided Badar with the money to pay ITJ Retails. The donations made in late 2014 appear to have been made directly into Achlia's account.
The donations made to Achlia would invariably find their way back into the LCR Investments and SES Technologies laundry cycle. Bank records for SES show that Achlia frequently made large deposits into its account, which were subsequently funnelled away. Achlia, and other members of the Gupta family, frequently made large unsecured loans to Gupta-linked companies, among them LCR Investments.
Payments made to LCR Investments by Gupta-owned companies in Dubai were a second source of foreign income. In 2014, Indian tax authorities queried the source of funds used to provide several unsecured loans provided by the family and its companies to LCR Investments during the previous financial year.
Anil, Achlia and Doon Leisure and Hospitality (an Indian company owned by the Guptas, previously known as Sahara Computers and Electronics) were queried in this matter.
In response, Achlia referred to a donation made to her by Shivani "out of her natural love and affection for me and the same has been accepted by me".
Yet this heart-warming gesture of charity was not paid directly to Achlia. Instead, the money was paid from her sister's Bank of Baroda account into that of the Dubai-based Global Corporation LLC. Global Corporation would in turn pay this into the bank account of LCR Investments, again funding the cycle.
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Global Corporation was one several Gupta-linked shelf companies that a News24 investigation last year was unable to track down, despite journalists spending a week in Dubai.
A third source of funds was direct payments from the Guptas' Dubai-based companies. An elaborate example of the way the money is laundered is found in the Gupta leaks, and involves several companies that the Guptas have direct control over.
This launder process will be delved into in the next instalment of Pillars of Sand, as well as its links to the family's Dubai operations.