Private Sector Business Leaders On Joy Ride To New York
- Government spends millions on country’s richest businessmen
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
The jumbo Sri Lankan delegation – an estimated 110 — that traveled to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, included ten top businessmen from the country’s private sector – who were part of the Presidential delegation, all at public expense. For the first time in the country’s history the government paid for the air tickets, hotel rooms etc. for the business leaders. On earlier visits the businessmen paid for their own expenses.
The man behind this wastage of public funds is the infamous Coordinating Secretary to the President, Sajin Vass Gunewardene who is well known for his extravagant life style at public expense. Vass Gunewardene now a member of parliament, is held responsible for the mammoth Rs. 3 billion loss endured by Mihin Air.
The President’s Coordinating Secretary was in New York in the first week of September to organise the President’s trip. Breaking all regulations for such visits, Vass Gunewardene ordered the Foreign Ministry to pay all ‘extras’ such as room service and laundry. He went further and provided cell phones with IDD facilities to all 110 delegates.
He ordered 40 limousines for the delegation but some of the private sector businessmen who were told that they have been provided with vehicles never saw them.
The Sri Lankan mission in New York is buzzing with gossip as to who collected the hundreds of thousands of dollars in kick-backs from the service providers.
Among the key businessmen who accompanied President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the government delegation to the UN were Mano Selvanathan, Susantha Ratnayake, Noel Selvanayagam, W.K.H. Wegapitiya, Dhammika Perera, Sanjeewa Wickramanayake, Dr. S. Selliah and Ashrof Omar.
CEO of the multi million dollar Brandix group Ashrof Omar, when contacted by The Sunday Leader confirmed his visit to New York was on a government invitation and said his visit was sponsored by the state.
He said the delegates stayed in New York for about five to six days at the Waldorf Astoria.
Seventy rooms were booked at US$ 472 per night for five days at the Waldorf Astoria at a total cost of US$ 165,200. This was apart from the President’s suite which cost US $ 1000 per night.
Omar said the businessmen attended two sessions at the UN – the session on the Millennium Development Goals and the General Assembly.
Director, Carson Cumberbatch PLC, Mano Selvanathan also confirmed to The Sunday Leader that he visited New York as part of the government delegation. Pressed if he had paid the bill for his five-day stay at the Waldorf Astoria, Selvanathan said he did not know. “I do not know,” he said, maintaining he booked out of the luxury New York hotel unaware who was meeting his bill.
When asked who paid for his airfare to New York, he said he made the reservation for his air travel and is still awaiting the voucher. However The Sunday Leader can confirm that all of Mano Selvanathan’s expenses including the air ticket was paid by public funds.
Several attempts to contact President, Senok Group, Noel Selvanayagam failed. Repeated attempts by us to get his response proved futile as he ignored all messages left by The Sunday Leader.
Selvanayagam in addition to accompanying the President to New York was also part of his private entourage to Germany and Houston. The air tickets, hotel expenses and all other extras such as laundry room service were paid by the State. Both the visit to Germany and Houston were billed as private visits. While there is no clear explanation as to why the President visited Germany he had visited Houston to meet his brother Dudley. In fact the only brother who does not hold a senior government post in his administration.
Chairman, John Keells Holdings, Susantha Ratnayake said he paid for his own air fare to and from New York. He admitted however that his hotel bill had been met by the State. “When I tried to pay the bill I was told my room was being met as part of a master bill,” he said.
Group Chairman, Laugfs, Wegapitiya and former Chairman of the Board of Investments (BoI) and businessman, Dhammika Perera were not available for comment as they are yet overseas and expected to return to the country only this week.
The Sunday Leader was also unable to contact CEO/MD, E-Wis, Sanjeewa Wickramanayake and Deputy Chairman, Lanka Walltiles Limited, Dr. Sellaiah.
All the businessman were flown on Business Class. A return air ticket on Emirates Airlines Colombo – New York is Rs. 425,200.