Did Press Club of India cover up former cashier’s embezzlement?

The treasurer says yes, the general secretary says no. Who’s telling the truth and who’s 'playing politics'?

WrittenBy:Supriti David
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On June 19, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, the Press Club of India treasurer, sent an email to the journalist association’s president, general secretary and finance committee detailing an alleged instance of corruption.

Sen alleged that PCI’s former cashier, Anil Bartwal, had embezzled Rs 5 lakh from the association but he wasn’t reported to the police. That’s not all, PCI hadn’t kept a Fixed Asset Register for several years despite earning revenues of over Rs eight crore per year, Sen said.

But PCI’s general secretary, Vinay Kumar, rejected Sen’s claims as “baseless and totally false”. “They were made with malafide intention to defame the managing committee,” he alleged. “Mr Sudhi Ranjan Sen is giving false narrative to everyone to satisfy his political vendetta against the managing committee, being the only candidate who won the election from the opposition panel.”

The current managing committee was chosen in a contentious election last April. Four of its five prime posts, including president, were won by a panel backed by the outgoing management. The fifth went to Sen, the only person from the opposition panel to win the election. The Bloomberg journalist had been in the last managing committee as well, until he was pushed out following a row during last year’s Covid lockdown.

In his email, which Newslaundry accessed, Sen claimed that he learned of the embezzlement soon after taking charge as the treasurer in May and discussed it at the managing committee meeting on May 29. At the same meeting, Sen claimed, Jitendra Singh, PCI’s office manager, revealed that “office bearers of the previous managing committee” had known about the alleged embezzlement and previous treasurer Neeraj Thakur had even directed the management to recover the money from Bartwal’s salary.

Singh then suggested, as per Sen’s email, that PCI could recover Rs 3 lakh by withholding Bartwal’s gratuity. He also said Bartwal had signed a letter accepting the allegations of embezzlement and requesting that he be allowed to continue working at PCI. Newslaundry could not verify these allegations independently.

Kumar, the general secretary, flatly denied the allegations. “Anil Bartwal, an old employee of PCI, had utilized the Press Club cash lying with him during the Covid lockdown for the treatment of his brother, who had been diagnosed with cancer, and his wife. He used this money because PCI wasn’t paying salaries during the lockdown.”

Bartwal’s actions weren’t criminal, Kumar contended, since he had agreed, in writing, to return the money in instalments and because the Press Club hadn’t suffered wrongful financial loss. PCI had conducted a detailed investigation into Bartwal’s actions and submitted a report to its finance and managing committees, Kumar added. The managing committee met on July 24 and passed a “majority resolution to not file a complaint or take legal action against Anil Bartwal”. Sen was absent from this meeting, Kumar said.

The committee also decided that, on humanitarian grounds, Bartwal would be asked to resign after settling the amount rather than be sacked so that he could find a job elsewhere. Bartwal had since made good on his word and was no longer employed with PCI, Kumar pointed out.

Contrary to what Sen claimed in the email, Kumar clarified that Bartwal was still entitled to his gratuity and other benefits that came with the job.

But on what authority had PCI’s management acted as judge and jury to decide on an alleged crime? “The managing committee of PCI, being the board of directors of the company, is legally empowered to make any decisions about the company and its matters,” Vinay replied. “The committee did not find it to be a case of criminal embezzlement.”

Since it was a private matter of the company and the alleged embezzlement didn’t involve public money, he elaborated, the board, which is the managing committee in this case, was “fully empowered to make any decision in law”.

Unaccounted assets’

Sen also alleged in his email that there was an amount of Rs 5 lakh missing from PCI’s balance sheet. The association hadn’t kept a register of its fixed assets which, he added, totalled nearly Rs 8 crore. “A statutory auditor must rely upon Fixed Asset Register in order to audit fixed assets of the company,” Sen wrote, adding that PCI’s auditors had given it a Qualified Audit Report. The Qualified Audit Report details discrepancies, typically called qualifications, in the financial statements of the company.

The auditor’s report allegedly stated that a physical verification of PCI’s fixed assets had not been conducted and a Fixed Asset Register not maintained for years. “This is highly concerning as there is very little to assume that fixed assets of the Press Club are indeed as reported,” Sen wrote.

Kumar rubbished these allegations as well. He said PCI’s assets were “properly assessed and mentioned” in its annual financial statements, which were submitted to the Registrar of Companies and were publicly available on its website.

Taking aim at the treasurer, he claimed, “Sudhi Ranjan Sen has been a member of the managing committee of PCI since 2012, but he’s never raised the issue of fixed assets before it or any legal forum. He has been part of the resolutions passed by the committee in the past accepting the financial statements mentioning the fixed assets of PCI. In our opinion, he has raised this false issue with you to make you falsely believe that at least something is going wrong in PCI.”

Newslaundry made repeated attempts to reach Sen for comment, without success. The report will be updated if he responds.


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