LAHORE: Three senior bureaucrats of Punjab on Tuesday appeared before the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in connection with its probe into the affairs of public-sector companies.

“NAB quizzed provincial secretaries Najam Shah (health), Agha Khurram (housing) and Iftikhar Sahu (planning & development) for more than three hours primarily over the affairs of the Punjab Saaf Pani Company,” an official source told Dawn.

He said the three bureaucrats had taken Chief Secretary Zahid Saeed into confidence before leaving for NAB office at Thokar Niaz Baig to record their statements. “The secretaries wanted assurance (from the chief secretary) that NAB would not detain them like it did in the case of some officers in the Ashiana-i-Iqbal housing scam last week,” he said, adding that the secretaries had brought all relevant record along with them before the NAB investigators.

The source said that after the arrest of Ahad Cheema, who is considered close to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, there is trepidation in the Punjab bureaucracy that first strongly reacted to the NAB action and is now apprehending similar action against any other senior officer in its ongoing investigation in several provincial projects.

“The Punjab government was earlier reluctant to submit the record of the Saaf Pani Company despite repeated requests by NAB but now it is cooperating with it,” said the source. Similarly, he said, the rising temperature between NAB and the Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE) over the issue of handing over the case record had come down after both agreed to follow SoPs in this regard.

“We have no issue with NAB on handing over the Saaf Pani Company record or investigation any more. The issue has been settled as we told NAB that we do not have the original record of any department/company and under the law it cannot hand over the investigation of any case to any other investigation agency,” ACE Director General retired Brig Muzzafar Ali Ranjha told Dawn.

Earlier, a NAB official had told Dawn that the Punjab government was not submitting the record of the Saaf Pani Company to it because Shahbaz Sharif was accused of violating the PPRA rules in award of contracts. “ACE had lodged an FIR against a former CEO of Saaf Pani Company. Why it had not included the name of the chief minister who approved direct contracting of the project without providing a level playing field to other companies and violated the PPRA rules?” he asked.

NAB four months ago had launched a thorough probe into the affairs of the 56 public-sector companies formed by Shahbaz Sharif administration in Punjab for their alleged involvement in corruption. These companies are accused of certain irregularities, recruitment in violation of procurement rules and merit, nepotism, and non-completion of various projects in time. There has been also lack of performance and regular audit and non-transparent procedure of tendering in these companies which come under direct supervision of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

NAB chairman retired Justice Javed Iqbal had directed the inquiry officials that these companies should not be stopped from working till enough evidence was gathered against them. He also directed that legal course should be followed during the process of investigation.

A case against these companies is also pending with the Lahore High Court. In his contention before the court in this case, a petitioner said: “Just in 2016, the number of companies increased from six to 56. These companies had expenditure of Rs250bn but no audit of these companies was ever carried out except one performance audit by the auditor general of Pakistan.”

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2018