Did Vijay Mallya’s company transfer Rs 4,000 crores to a tax haven?

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Reserve Bank of India have launched a probe into the transfer of Rs 4,000 crore from United Spirits Ltd (USL) to the British Virgin Islands in early 2007 by the company before it was taken over by Diageo in 2012.

A probe into the transfer was first ordered by a division Bench of the Karnataka High Court on December 20, 2013, but there was no follow up by the agencies. With the Narendra Modi government taking an aggressive stand on defaulters, the ED and RBI have been asked to look into USL’s transactions and call for relevant papers from the company and Diageo, its new owner, said an official close to the development.

Under Diageo, USL now has a new management with its former Chief Financial Officer (CFO) P A Murali quitting on April 23, 2015.

A mail sent to Diageo did not elicit any response, while a UB Group spokesperson declined to comment.

During the hearing in the high court, lenders had argued that the money was transferred to the tax haven without proper documentation and these needed to be probed. But USL had argued that the money was transferred for the acquisition of Whyte & Mackay in May 2007, in a deal worth around $1.2 billion.

After Diageo took over USL, it sold Whyte & Mackay in 2014 at a 25 per cent discount to the 2007 acquisition price. The proceeds of the sale were not brought to India and were used to repay foreign loans. Interestingly, the proceeds of the 2012 sale of USL by Mallya to Diageo were also not brought to India and were parked in Mallya’s offshore accounts.

Corporate lawyers said while non-disclosure or wrong disclosures by UB Group can be investigated by RBI, ED will look into the money laundering aspect.

The investigation will involve calling of annual reports since the transaction, auditor reports, company filings with RBI and from foreign banks.

Citibank was the financier of the Whyte & Mackay acquisition and the bank was also USL’s lender in India. Corporate lawyers said as annual reports between 2010 and 2013 are disputed and, according to Diageo, were cooked by Mallya, it would be difficult for the agencies to rely on these.