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Last Updated : Nov 27, 2019 08:25 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Book Excerpt | When the Panama Papers almost implicated the wrong Ratan Tata

Journalists on the trail of the Panama Papers scandal mistook a Gulf-based businessman named Ratan Tata for the Indian industrialist.

Excerpts from 'The Panama Papers', the story of the pursuit of investigative journalists into names of Indians that propped up in the Mossack Fonseca document leak that shook the world. Reproduced with permission from Penguin Random House India.

Among the rare 'false positives' in the leaked data, the most dramatic was of the Ratan Tata who was not. In November 2015, Jay found at least a dozen documents in the leaked data that named Ratan Tata as the president, director and the legal representative of Coral Resorts Development Limited Inc., a Panamanian company set up in August 1986.

Records showed that one Francis Perez represented Tata in several board meetings of the said company where one Leticia Montoya also served as a director along with Tata. On one occasion, the company instructed its shareholder, Union Bank of Switzerland, to sell all US securities and reinvest in non-US securities 'so that reportable amounts for US tax purposes are not created'. Coral Resorts Development Limited Inc. was dissolved in December 2003.

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When it was time to seek responses, Jay wrote to Tata on 28 March 2016, requesting him to comment on his connection with and role in the company, and his associations with Perez and Montoya, both named in several international cases of money laundering. Within hours, the managing trustee of the Tata Trust, R. Venkataraman, replied, 'Mr RNT has or had no connection whatsoever with either the organisation or the personnel,' concerned. Jay was in a fix. Tata's denial was emphatic and unequivocal. Yet, a bunch of Mossack Fonseca records claimed otherwise. To be doubly sure, around noon the next day, Jay shared a few more details of the company from the Mossack Fonseca archive for further perusal and requested a reconfirmation of Ratan Tata's denial. This set off a flurry of events.

Within a couple of hours, Vaidy received a message that Mukund Rajan, chief ethics officer of the Tata Group, would like to meet him and Jay to better understand the matter at hand. Rajan would fly in from Mumbai late in the afternoon and fly out the same night. That allowed a tight window for a meeting at the Taj Mahal Hotel, owned by the Tata Group. Vaidy and Jay lost no time in hitting the road, the drive across the Yamuna could be unpredictable depending on traffic. Neither of them had a clue as to why Rajan was flying down at such short notice. The hour-long drive was well spent, speculating about different scenarios and how to approach each of them differently.

Rajan was already waiting for them when they arrived at their destination on Man Singh Road. The meeting was not stretched unnecessarily. Rajan did not question the reporters' prerogative and premises. 'I am sure you have your reasons to raise these very specific questions. But our position, his position, is that these are absolutely untrue.' But Venkataraman had already conveyed the same in his mail. The meeting, it appeared, was necessitated by the perception that the newspaper might anyway publish what it found on the Mossack Fonseca records along with Ratan Tata's comments. Rajan's purpose was probably to veer away from it by conveying to the two reporters the weight and conviction of Ratan Tata's denial. The message was clear: The 'grand old man' of Indian business was deeply anguished at the prospect of being dragged into a global story on tax fraud and criminals for no fault of his. Vaidy and Jay shared with Rajan some of the details of the references to Ratan Tata found in the records of the Panamanian company and assured him that they would further investigate the references to the matter before taking a final call.

Soon after the meeting with Rajan was over, Venkataraman replied to Jay's second mail, reiterating that Ratan Tata had no knowledge of the company or the individuals concerned. Underlining that the Tata Group 'decided to undertake a detailed investigation into the matter to ascertain that how Mr Tata's name came to be so misused', he added, 'Mr Ratan Tata is one of the most respected industrialists of our country, who has dedicated as entire life for the economic prosperity of India and is highly regarded for his integrity and business ethics, not only in India but internationally. We are surprised that having known Mr Tata's contribution for so many years, you have chosen to believe that Mr Tata could ever get associated with such an organization.' Jay replied that a professional journalist was not supposed to believe disbelieve any information at face value without checking its veracity. 'Therefore, we approached Mr Ratan Tata in a straightforward fashion. We appreciate his cooperation,' he wrote. The issue though had to be resolved and both Jay and Vaidy decided to dig deeper.

Soon enough, Jay traced a reference to a Ratan Tata in the book Major Companies of the Arab World 1991/91, edited by Giselle C. Bricault, that described him as the managing director of Hotel Dammam Oberoi established in 1981. Searching further on this lead, he then found a Coral Resorts Development Limited Inc record in the Mossack Fonseca data that said director Ratan Tata was domiciled at Hotel Oberoi, Dammam, Saudi Arabia. By that time, Vaidy found that there was one Rattan Tata—'one of the brightest sparks in the Oberoi Group from Singapore's Imperial'— who set up the Oberoi Hotel in Dammam. The mystery unravelled: the Tata who worked for the Oberoi Group and owned the Panamanian company spelt his name variously as Rattan and Ratan, leading to the grand confusion.

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First Published on Nov 27, 2019 04:41 pm
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