NEW DELHI The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is examining the role of tycoon Anil Ambani in a multi-billion dollar telecoms scandal that has rocked political and business elites, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency said on Thursday.
The 52-year-old billionaire is the highest-profile company executive to be touched by the investigation of whether lucrative radio spectrum and mobile phone licences were sold at below-market prices in return for kickbacks.
The scandal is the biggest of several corruption cases to emerge in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second term. It has damaged the government's credibility and thrown a spotlight on the behaviour of leading industrialists and politicians.
A lawyer for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) told the Supreme Court that Ambani was now under investigation, after he was questioned earlier this year by police, according to PTI.
Three of his executives are already in jail accused of setting up a front company called Swan Telecom to gain valuable radio spectrum during the sale. A state auditor said the scandal cost the government up to $39 billion in lost revenues.
"The role of Ambani and other employees in relation to 9.9 the percent share in the Swan Telecom which was sold to Delphi is being probed," CBI lawyer K.K. Venugopal said, according to PTI.
A CBI source told Reuters the agency was currently collecting evidence and not yet directly investigating Ambani, who controls India's No. 2 mobile carrier Reliance Communications as part of his Reliance ADA group.
"In case there is anything we will investigate," said the source, who asked not to be named. "The probe is not over yet."
One of the country's most recognisable figures, Ambani is a teetotal marathon runner listed by Forbes as India's eighth richest man. He denies wrongdoing in the telecoms case. A Reliance ADA spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.
Ambani is the controlling shareholder of Reliance Communications and is part of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group conglomerate which has interests from telecoms to energy and outsourcing.
He is the chairman and chief executive of the group companies. Reliance Communicatins shares fell 1.15 percent on Thursday to close at 77.60 rupees.
The CBI lawyer said the three jailed men had now retracted previous statements in which they had taken responsibility for decisions made in the Reliance unit they worked for, the news agency said.
"Suddenly they are going back on their statement and are now saying that they are only employees and in no way they benefited monetarily," Venugopal said.
"We are going to take our probe further to find out who are the real beneficiaries," he said, according to the news agency.
Revelations of graft in the telecoms license sales and during the buildup to the 2010 Commonwealth games in Delhi sparked the largest street protests in decades this August against a culture of kickbacks and favors between political and business elites and also sparked tensions in the federal cabinet.
(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Abhijit Neogy, Arup Roychoudhury and Devidutta Tripathy; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Matthias Williams and Ed Lane)