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Monday, August 26, 2013

LTC scam: MPs may also be inflating air travel bills

NEW DELHI: The stink of forged airline tickets being used to defraud the government is spreading to Parliament.

Ever since TOI on Thursday exposed the widespread scandal in LTC (leave travel concession) claims, where officials of the central government and public sector units have been submitting forged or inflated airline travel bills, information has been emerging of the scam being far more widespread than known, and quite efficiently organized.

Here comes the latest shocker: It may not be just government officials who have been submitting forged airline tickets in connivance with travel agents to defraud the government. According to multiple sources, there seems to be a well-oiled network of travel agents supplying members of Parliament with similarly inflated flight tickets.

In some cases, it is possible that the MPs are not aware of their bills being forgeries, but there are indications that some MPs may also be part of the racket.

At least one Lok Sabha member confirmed to TOI that he was a victim of one such racket. The MP, who did not want to be named, lodged a complaint with the Speaker on August 12, demanding a thorough probe of all airline tickets submitted by him to the secretariat. Contents of the letter were shared with TOI.

Members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are entitled to business class tickets to attend Parliament sessions, consultative and standing committee meetings, or other official functions. Besides, they are also entitled to 34 business class tickets in a year.

The 34 business class tickets can be used in different ways, MPs can take spouses or companions along. The spouse/companion can travel alone up to eight times using these tickets. The unused tickets are carried over to the next year.

There are two ways for MPs to claim their tickets. One is to collect exchange orders from the secretariat of the House concerned and submit them to an Air India office and pick up tickets in exchange. They can also obtain tickets from the Air India counter on the first floor of Parliament building.

The second, and preferred way, is to buy tickets through travel agents and submit the boarding pass, e-ticket and filled-up voucher for reimbursement. The money is reimbursed to the bank account of the MP. Tickets of any airline can be booked through travel agents.

It is in the second method that the scandal exists. According to the MP who has complained to the Speaker, he used to buy his tickets through a travel agent based in Regal Building, Connaught Place, in Delhi. The MP said he thought he was "trapped by the representative of the travel agent".

He said the travel agent was charging him an "exaggerated amount" while supplying tickets purchased at lower prices. When he sensed something was wrong, he switched to a new travel agent based in Gulmohar Enclave. But here again, he realized that the same racket was going on. He suspects that his personal staff may also be involved .

Inquiries with several officials involved with MPs, some MPs themselves and travel industry sources indicate that many of the MPs may be aware of the racket. In some instances, it is the personal staff of the MP who seem to be involved .

What has let this racket flourish is the lax audit systems of the Parliament secretariat, officials claimed. There seems to be no foolproof audit of claims submitted by MPs, who only have to submit boarding passes and e-tickets, which could well be forged.

The revelations about MPs' tickets too being possibly manipulated comes even as the CBI is expected to begin an investigation against travel agents, employees of the Rajya Sabha secretariat, Ordnance Factory Board, Shipping Corporation of India and possibly even Air India for being part of a massive racket in submitting fake or forged airline tickets to claim LTC.

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