In a major move, the Enforcement Directorate has attached oil rigs and other oil installations outside the country after issuing a provisional attachment order against Sandesara Group of Companies. The agency attached the group's assets worth over £970 million in Nigeria, including four oil rigs, an oil field, ships and aircraft.
With this order, the total attachment against Sandesara group has exceeded £1.45 billion. Last year, the ED had attached over £470 million of assets belonging to group company Sterling Biotech Ltd and its subsidiaries. Its promoters Chetan Sandesara and Nitin Sandesara are suspected to be in Nigeria. The ED said, "The attached properties include four oil rigs and oil field namely OML 143, located in Nigeria, in the name of Sterling Energy Exploration Pvt Co. Ltd, Nigeria; ships Tulja Bhawani, Varinda, Bhavya, Brahmani etc registered in Panama and held in the name of Atlantic Blue water Services; an aircraft Gulfstream 200 registered in the US and in the name of SAIB LLC; besides a residential flat in London."
The companies were associated with Sterling Biotech Ltd, the agency claimed in its attachment order. The attachment of assets worth £473 million made in 2018 was confirmed by the adjudicating authority of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), giving possession of the properties to the ED. The agency had registered a case under PMLA against the Sterling Biotech group in 2017 on the basis of a CBI case of bank loan fraud of £585.3 million.
“The promoters have not only siphoned off bank loans to finance their Nigerian oil business but also for their personal purposes,” the ED claimed. The probe even found that the group was engaged in round tripping of standby letters of credit (SBLCs) funds worth £450 million.
The accused had incorporated multiple shell companies, conducting circular transactions to artificially inflate turnover of flagship companies, claiming higher depreciation on non-existing machinery to avoid tax liabilities, artificial share trading with shell companies, and layering and laundering of proceeds of crime within India and abroad through a web of multiple shell companies, the agency claimed in its attachment order.
The promoters had allegedly incorporated 247 shell companies in India and 96 in various countries, including the UAE, the US, the UK, British Virgin Islands, Mauritius, Barbados, Panama and Nigeria, to launder the money received from banks. “It was revealed during investigation that funds were rotated through various structures and ultimately parked in Nigeria to cater to the personal interests of the main promoters,” the ED has claimed.