- From tax payers’ hard-earned money…
by Nirmala Kannangara
Although the extravagant expenses made by the Rajapaksa family during their time was not a secret, it had now come to light how former First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa had spent a staggering amount of tax payers’ hard-earned money to stay in Paris for four nights just prior to her husband’s defeat at the 2015 presidential election.
Official documents this newspaper is now in possession shows how the former First Lady’s tour to Paris, to take part in the UNESCO Vesak Celebration in 2014, had resulted in public funds running into millions of rupees being used within five days. Mrs. Rajapaksa had accompanied her aunt – Daisy Forest alias Daisy Achchi – who shot to fame for receiving a gunny of gem stones from an unknown person, which was spent to purchase a property from Mt. Lavinia for her grand nephew, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, and a close associate.
The trio had checked in to one of the most luxurious hotels in Paris – Four Seasons Hotel George V and had wined and dined spending public money to the tune of a staggering Rs. 25 million. Although the accomplices had stayed in deluxe rooms, Shiranthi Rajapaksa had checked in to the Royal Suite, which is on the first floor of the hotel that has direct access to a private terrace overlooking the historic art deco fountain, the Three Grace. This suite features an oversize space for entertainment and relaxation with a marble fireplace and the master marble bathroom of redefined luxury with a steam room and a spacious walk-in dressing room fit for a king.
The Royal Suite charge alone had cost the country Rs. 10.556 million (Euro 58,000) for her five-day stay in Paris for the UNESCO event. A staggering amount of Rs. 25.08 million had been spent on Mrs. Rajapaksa and her two accomplices – Daisy Forest and Peththawadu Lakeesha Nisansala de Silva for accommodation, food and mini bar, limousines, VIP and miscellaneous expenses together with domestic air fare to Lourdes, where the famous Catholic shrine is. Although the said cost had been borne by the then Ministry of External Affairs headed by Prof. G. L. Peiris, it is believed that the airfare from Colombo to Paris had been settled by the Presidential Secretariat.
According to a document dated May 4, 2017 attested by the Sri Lankan Ambassador to France, Thilak Ranaviraja, the cost breakdown with the invoices of the expenditure incurred for Shiranthi’s visit to Paris is 137,396 Euros (Sri Lankan Rs. 25.08 million). For the accommodation with incidental expenses Rs. 16.17 million (Euro 88,552), limousine hire charges were Rs. 7.59 million (Euro 41,650), Air tickets from Paris to Lourdes was Rs. 7.68 lakhs (Euro 42,000) and VIP and miscellaneous expenses Rs. 5.43 lakhs (Euro 2,994) which the total comes to Rs. 25.08 million (Euro 137,396).
In an urgent fax to the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Paris by the Chief Accountant, Ministry of External Affairs dated May 19, 2014, states that Rs. 25 million had been allocated for the First Lady’s visit to Paris.
The fax further states as thus, ‘File Ref: MEA/FIN/CU-06/001/2014. Allocation of funds for the First Lady’s visit to Paris. This refers to the letter No: FM/F1/157/2014(18) dated May 16, 2014 on the above.
‘Allocation of SL Rs. 25 million (Euro187,000) has been granted under the Vote No: 001-01-01-0-1102 to meet the above expenses.
‘Accordingly, you are kindly requested to make payments not exceeding the allocations granted and send debit intimations to the Presidential Secretariat with a copy to this Ministry along with Monthly Summery of Accounts’.
Although the trio had stayed at Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris from May 20 to May 24 in the guise of the UNESCO event, they had also flown to Lourdes on a private religious tour on May 23 out of public funds. Suite charge alone for Shiranthi Rajapaksa was Rs. 2.639 million (Euro 14,500) per day and for her five-day stay, the tax payers had paid Rs. 10.556 million (Euro 58,000) and another Rs. 1.082 million (Euro 5,945.50) had been spent on food, spirits, laundry and spa products during her stay over there. Room charges for Daisy Forest, Lakeesha De Silva and for the Sri Lankan Embassy official who accompanied Shiranthi Rajapaksa were Rs. 245,700 (Euro 1,350) per day, per person and for the four nights it had cost the tax payer Rs. 982,800 (Euro 5,400) per person. For Daisy Achchi, Lakeesha de Silva and the Embassy officer the country had spent Rs. 2.948 million (Euro 16,200) and incidental expenses for Daisy Forest for four nights was Rs. 277,368 (Euro 1,524); for Lakeesha de Silva, Rs. 361,452 (Euro 1,986); and for the Embassy Official, Rs. 891,254 (Euro 4,897). The total cost for food and room charges were Rs.16.175 million (Euro 88,552.50).
Once the former Foreign Minister had told that although King George V of England had stayed at Four Seasons Hotel George V, Queen Elizabeth II does not wish to stay there due to its high rates, but for the ‘Sri Lankan Queen’ the high rates were not an issue as it was borne by the tax payers’ and not by the Rajapaksas.
The day Shiranthi Rajapaksa had checked in, according to the hotel bill (folio number 357270 dated May 24. 2014), she had spent Rs. 84,448 (Euro 464) for her dinner while on May 22 she had used Rs. 45,864 worth of sprits from the room mini bar and on May 24, she had obtained sprits once again from the mini bar worth of Rs. 40,222 (Euro 221) and on the same day another Rs. 67,522 (Euro 371) had been spent on sprits. Her telephone bill during the stay was Rs. 101,829 (Euro 559.5). The spa products she had obtained from the hotel on May 22 had cost yet another Rs. 23,660 (Euro 130).
Although Daisy Forest had not obtained sprits, according to hotel’s folio number 375209, she had continuously taken telephone calls worth Rs. 220,220 (Euro 1,210) from the day she checked in up to the time she checked out.
According to folio number 357208 dated May 24, 2014, Lakeesha de Silva had spent Rs. 372,372 (Euro 2,046) on food and sprits during her stay at the hotel.
Meanwhile, another Rs. 7.5 million had been spent to hire limousines during this period and according to official documents, the limousines had been hired from Royal Services Limousines and the breakdown is: For the Multivan that had been hired before and during Rajapaksa’s tour from May 18 to May 24 had cost Rs. 828,100 (Euro 4,550). The hiring charges for the Mercedes S600 was Rs. 1.646 million (Euro 9,045), for Mercedes S350 Rs. 806,988 (Euro 4,434), for Mercedes Viano Rs. 745,290 (Euro 4,095), another Mercedes Viano had been hired and its hiring cost was Rs. 804,440 (Euro 4,420), for Mercedes Class E Rs. 707,980 (Euro 3,890) and for the second Mercedes Class E, another Rs. 755,300 (Euro 4,150) had been paid. The total hiring charges with the applicable taxes were Rs. 7.553 million (Euro 41,500).
A highly reliable official at the External Affairs Ministry during the previous regime, on conditions of anonymity, said that although the tour was planned only for the then First Lady, when the other two names were sent from the Presidential Secretariat to be included, the ministry had no say but to allocate more funds for the additional party as well. “An official from the Sri Lankan Embassy in France was assigned to look into matters related to Shiranthi Rajapaksa’s visit. But when the two names were included the External Affairs Ministry had to bear the additional cost as well. The tour to Lourdes was not official but a private visit. We had to pay the airfare for that as well,” sources said.
When asked who chose the hotel for the visiting party, the sources said that although when the President travels officially, to maintain the standard the best hotel is booked as he has to meet foreign dignitaries, he was not aware whether Four Seasons Hotel George V was chosen by the then First Lady or the External Affairs Ministry officials. “I assume that this luxurious hotel may have been selected by Shiranthi Rajapaksa as I know for certain that the ministry officials would not have chosen such an expensive hotel and one of its finest suits for Mrs. Rajapaksa. When instructions were given, our officials do not have a say but to abide by the instructions. This is waste of money. During the first few months of the present regime, when I was still at the External Affairs Ministry, I have seen how easy for our officials to make arrangements for the President or Prime Minister’s official tours as pressure was not mounted on any official. That is the difference between the previous and present regimes,” sources added.
However when contacted Prof. G. L. Peiris, former Minister of External Affairs during Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, to find out as to why such a staggering amount of money was allocated for Shiranthi Rajapaksa’s tour, Prof. Peiris said that it is decided not by the subject minister but by the relevant officers in the Ministry. “Once the allocation is decided, it goes to the Ministry Secretary who is the Chief Accounting Officer for his approval. Without his approval, the Ministry cannot release the funds for any purpose,” Prof. Peiris said.
With regard to the accommodations provided for the former First Lady at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel George V, Prof. Peiris said the hotels for accommodation are not selected by the visiting delegation but by the protocol division of the Ministry. “If a President is touring a foreign country, he has to meet his counterparts and other high-level delegations. So he has to stay in a suite in one of the best hotels. This does not apply for the delegation members. They can stay in other hotels. In regard to the former First Lady’s tour also, the protocol division of the External Affairs Ministry should have arranged the accommodation, the vehicles to be used and even the domestic flights. Once the details of her visit are informed to the Ministry, everything is looked after by these officials but not on the directives of Mrs. Rajapaksa,” Prof. Peiris claimed.
When asked as to why the External Affairs Ministry spent for the domestic air tickets from Paris to Lourdes, which was not official but merely a religious tour, Prof. Peiris said that it was a minor matter comparing to the frauds that are taking place now under the good governance administration. “Spending a few Euros comparing to the millions of rupee frauds that are now taking place, is a minor matter,” Prof. Peiris added.
Prof. Peiris further said that taking one or two trustworthy friends or close family members with the First Lady is nothing new as all First Ladies in other countries too travel with their trusted ones rather than going all alone.
When asked whether it was Presidential Secretariat or the External Affairs Ministry that paid the air fare from Colombo to Paris for the entourage, Prof Peiris said it does not matter who paid for the tickets as it is passed from the parliament. “Once the vote is passed in the parliament for these expenses, it does not matter from which institution it goes as this is government funds,” he said.