(Updates with details from Sahara statement, context)
By Sumeet Chatterjee
MUMBAI, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Indian conglomerate Sahara Group said on Thursday that a letter intended to support a $2 billion transaction with a U.S.-based former broker was forged, dealing a major setback to the group’s efforts to secure bail for its jailed boss, Subrata Roy.
The statement came a day after Reuters reported evidence that Saransh Sharma, a California man who was leading the deal through his company Mirach Capital Group, didn’t have the money to pull off the transaction. A manager at Bank of America told Reuters he didn’t write a crucial letter, attributed to him, which purported to verify the existence of a billion-dollar bank account.
Sharma had said he was backed by a group of U.S. and U.K. investors for the deal, whom he declined to name, and said they were the source of funds supposedly placed in the Bank of America account.
Roy, a maverick businessman who during his heyday socialized with presidents and film stars, has been held at a New Delhi jail since March on contempt charges, after he failed to comply with a court order to repay investors in a bond scheme that was later ruled to be illegal. Roy is being held on $1.6 billion bail, the largest ever in India.
Sahara has been in talks with Sharma’s Mirach Capital to raise funds by refinancing its overseas hotels, including New York’s Plaza and Grosvenor House in London.
Late on Thursday, following the Reuters story, Sahara said in a statement that it had found out that the Bank of America letter, submitted by Mirach to the Supreme Court as a proof that it had set aside “sufficient funds” for the transaction, was forged.
Sahara said it had asked its lawyer in London to visit the Bank of America branch in Los Angeles and verify it: “We have now received the report ... it was a forged letter,” the company wrote in a statement.
Though Sahara did not specifically confirm deal talks had now been called off, it said it would take initiate civil and criminal legal proceedings against Mirach and its officials in India and in the United States for “reckless conduct.”
As a result of talks with Mirach, Sahara said, it had missed out on other, alternative deals in the last three or four months.
Sharma did not immediately respond to a Reuters email seeking comment on Sahara’s statement.
Reuters reported that a manager at a Bank of America branch in Florida told Reuters that he didn’t write an email, sent in his name to Sahara, which purported to verify the account’s existence. After Reuters asked the bank to look into the account, spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens issued a statement saying: “Bank of America isn’t involved in the transaction.”
Sharma had earlier admitted to stealing a database from a former employer. There are also two pending lawsuits against him alleging he forged a letter and produced fake documents to obtain a loan. He said he has learnt from his past mistakes.
Thursday’s twist is a setback to efforts to secure release for Roy. Indian regulators say his $1.6 billion bail reflects the cost of the illegal bond scheme that helped put him in jail -- a total estimated to be as much as $7 billion.
Sources familiar with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), the market regulator, have said if the hotel deal does not go through, Indian government officials would seize and sell Sahara assets, including its hotels and properties, to raise cash. (Additional reporting by Himank Sharma and Neha Dasgupta in MUMBAI; and Aditi Shah in NEW DELHI; Editing by Clara Ferreira Marques and John Pickering)