Officials go after Pakistani who ferrets out corruption

Adil Gilani's inquiries have helped expose bidding irregularities at power plants that robbed government coffers of $2 billion, a real estate scam that cost taxpayers $16 million and a $257-million scandal that brought down the chairman of Pakistan's largest steel mill.

Now, a growing number of officials appear intent on discrediting the gruff, white-haired Pakistani, who has run Transparency International's office in Karachi since 2000.

The revenue minister for Sindh province has called Gilani "an enemy of the country." Interior Minister Rehman Malik has threatened to shut down his office. The governor of Punjab, the country's wealthiest and most populous province, tweeted that Gilani had once been fired on suspicion of fraud, an allegation that turned out to be false.

Lately, Gilani said, he's also been receiving death threats. People he described as "high-placed government officials" have warned him in face-to-face meetings that he could be killed if he continued to criticize the government.

"The fact that I am alive at all is very strange," he said. "As a result of information that we have passed on to the Supreme Court, at least 25 people have been arrested, including big businessmen."

Corruption has long been seen as coursing through virtually every vein of Pakistani society. Only 2% of Pakistan's population pays income taxes. Federal lawmakers have mysteriously tripled their incomes in just six years.

"Like other [developing countries], we have problems of governance, and like many, we have issues of transparency and corruption," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who is not related to Adil Gilani, said during a speech to international donors in November.

"Sometimes it is asked, why doesn't Pakistan help itself? Why doesn't Pakistan do more? When will Pakistan begin to reform its institutions and reform its public sector? These are valid questions," the prime minister continued.

The United States States has a major stake in Pakistan's battle with corruption. Washington needs a stable Pakistani government that can dismantle Afghan Taliban strongholds in the country's northwest and eradicate a homegrown insurgency that continues to launch waves of suicide bomb attacks in the nuclear-armed state.

Rampant corruption undermines the Pakistani government's credibility, making it harder for the government in Islamabad to amass public support for tackling those tasks.

Pakistan's government has long been touchy about outsiders looking into its internal affairs. But this fall, circumstances have resulted in an increased sensitivity to scrutiny.

Devastating summer floods that left millions homeless have forced Islamabad to seek billions of dollars in reconstruction aid from an international community wary that much of that money could be siphoned off.

Adil Gilani believes the aggressive campaign against him is driven in part by his new role in helping scrutinize how Pakistan spends the Obama administration's five-year, $7.5-billion civilian aid package, a portion of which will be used for post-flood reconstruction. In September, Gilani's office signed a five-year, $2.9-million contract with Washington to act as a clearinghouse for corruption complaints.

(Though Washington is primarily concerned about U.S. aid being misspent or misappropriated by Pakistani officials and bureaucrats, the U.S. has also recently raised flags about private American contractors involved in U.S.-funded Pakistan development projects. On Wednesday, the U.S. banned an American firm, the Academy for Educational Development, from being awarded new contracts after uncovering alleged evidence of fraud related to a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded effort in Pakistan's volatile tribal areas.)

Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog, consistently ranks Pakistan near the bottom of its annual corruption index; this year, it is listed as the world's 34th-most corrupt nation. According to another Transparency International report released Thursday, 73% of Pakistanis believe their government has been ineffective in curbing corruption.

"I realize we need to make innumerable improvements," Prime Minister Gilani said in his recent speech. "However, I can assure you a reforms program is being pursued to achieve a better level of governance."

Few would be more suited to help lead the charge than Adil Gilani, who oversees a staff of 22, mostly young Pakistani men and women who spend much of their time clipping government bid solicitation ads from newspapers to determine whether anything fishy crops up in the contracting process.

From a pair of cramped, stuffy offices alongside a Karachi avenue choked with motorcycle rickshaws, Gilani and his crew have taken on some of Pakistan's most powerful magnates and politicians. Their latest successful probe involves National Insurance Corp. Ltd., or NICL, the state-owned insurance provider, and its chairman, Ayaz Niazi.

Gilani's team learned that NICL bought as an investment a 100-acre parcel near the eastern city of Lahore for $18.7 million, eight times higher than the market price. Gilani brought the land deal to the attention of the country's Supreme Court, which on Oct. 12 ordered the government to arrest Niazi on corruption charges. He remained at large for several weeks, causing some to speculate that high-placed government officials were helping him hide to keep him from divulging the names of others involved. He was finally arrested Nov. 23 in Karachi.

Haroon Akhtar Khan, a senator on a subcommittee that has investigated other real estate deals involving NICL, said Gilani and Transparency International "are doing some good things. This case is an example. The scandals they bring out in the media virtually always prove out to be correct."

But like many others in government, Khan was angered by Transparency International's report giving Pakistan its low ranking. Gilani had nothing to do with the Berlin-based organization's umbrella assessment, but that doesn't matter to most Pakistanis, Khan says.

"It's when Transparency International says Pakistan is one of the most corrupt places, or that its ranking went down again in the corruption index, that the country shakes a little bit," Khan said.

Blowback against Gilani and Transparency International has been particularly harsh in the southeastern province of Sindh, where lawmakers passed a resolution condemning the watchdog group and calling its annual corruption report "a conspiracy against the country."

The nation's top law enforcement official, Interior Minister Malik, accused Transparency International's Pakistan chapter of bribery in threatening to shut down its operation, according to Pakistani news reports.

Punjab Governor Salman Taseer posted a Twitter message last summer saying, "Transparency International is run by a local, Adil Gilani, who was fired from KPT [Karachi's port authority] for fraud. Neither transparent nor international." Gilani has filed a defamation lawsuit against Taseer for $5.8 million.

The campaign against Gilani has been embarrassing for President Asif Ali Zardari's government. At a recent news conference, Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh emphasized that the scrutiny by Gilani and Transparency International is welcome.

"We should not be shy about anyone coming in and playing his part," Shaikh said. Then, referring to the threats and criticism Gilani has received from government circles. "Sometimes certain statements … get misunderstood."

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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