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I have been cleared of all charges: Chatwal

January 25, 2010 10:48 IST
Flamboyant and controversial New York hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal, a major political contributor and fundraiser for the Clintons and several high profile Democratic politicians, is elated that he is in line to receive a Padma Bhushan in this year's Republic Day honours list, and rubbished concerns that he is undeserving of the award.

When informed that he was strongly tipped to be named as one of the recipients of India's top civilian honours, Chatwal told rediff.com, "I feel great about it -- this is something really fantastic. You know how hard we worked, day and night to make this happen (promote better Indo-US relations) going forward for the last 20, 25 years," that culminated with the three-year lobbying effort to push through the US-India civilian nuclear deal through the United States Congress and to President George W Bush's desk for his signature.

When told that the award could generate controversy because of past charges of financial irregularities against him leveled by Indian banks and non-payment of property taxes in New York, Chatwal dismissed such concerns, saying he had been cleared both in India and the US of these charges and given a clean chit years ago after being fully investigated.

A retired diplomat, who has served in India's embassy in Washington, DC, told rediff.com on Saturday that awarding a Padma Bhushan to Chatwal would be a "mockery of the spirit of the Indian Republic" and that in doing so "the nation would be rewarding a man who has faced serious cases of financial irreguralities."

"It shows that not talent or service, but political connections gets you such awards," the diplomat had said.

"They can talk any of these stupid things," Chatwal said of the criticism. "(But) In India, you don't get an award (like the Padma Bhushan) until and unless you've been 101 percent cleared, and I have been of every damn thing by the American government, the federal government, by the judge -- everything."

"And the same thing has been done -- investigated in India and cleared a long time back," he said. "And believe me, nothing goes through without the home ministry clearing (the name) from every agency -- CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), intelligence, you name every agency."

"The same thing in America," Chatwal added. "When I got the Ellis Island Award ( an award in the US), they went through every tooth and nail before they give you the award."

"The Ellis Island Award is given to so many presidents, so many senators, so many politicians, and you go through the same hell -- you go through everything."

Chatwal said before he received that award, the Ellis Island Award committee had told him that it had take a lot of time, "but we got it all cleared from India. They went through the Indian court records. They sent a message over there. They checked everything there."

He said he could not have attended the number of White House state dinners he has been invited to from the time of the Clintons to President George W Bush and most recently the state dinner President Barack Obama hosted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last November unless he had a clean record.

He argued that he could not have traveled the way he did accompanying President Bill Clinton to India in March 2000 and again in April 2001 after the Gujarat earthquake and also all the trips "with Hillary (Clinton) as First Lady, as a senator and then secretary of state," if he wasn't absolutely clean vis-a-vis any financial matters.

Chatwal pointed out that when Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, visited India last July, he was the only one who had an exclusive dinner with her, sans any aides, diplomats or bureaucrats.

He pointed out that in today's age of the Internet, all these agencies, whether in the US or India, "they can do their own investigations and nowadays it is very easy ...because of the Internet ...because they have access to court records, every damn thing. You can get access to every court, every judgment, everything, whether here or in India, wherever."

Making a strong defence of the work he has done to promote US-India relations for the past three decades, Chatwal said, "You know how hard it was to move the relationship those days. But working with (then US Congressman from New York, Stephen) Solarz, the Clintons we moved forward. But it was not easy. We worked day and night."

He said it was particularly tough going because these were the Cold War years when India was perceived in Washington as a surrogate of the erstwhile Soviet Union, and there was no support for India in the US Congress, except for a lone Solarz, who was a virtual one-man India Caucus at the time.

Chatwal spoke of how he hosted his first fundraiser for Solarz "and all he wanted was $5,000, but getting $50 or $100 from Indians was so difficult." Finally, he recalled, he had a collection of only $3,200, but had given Solarz the full amount promised by issuing a post-dated check from the sales expected from the Bombay Palace restaurant that he owned.

He recalled how "I took Steve (Solarz) to meet with (then prime minister) Mrs (Indira) Gandhi. I had such a hard time getting a meeting with Mrs Gandhi, but thanks to Mr (Indira Gandhi's private secretary R K) Dhawan he managed to get me 20 minutes. But Mrs Gandhi wouldn't leave Steve for an hour-and-a-half."

He said Indira Gandhi was so thrilled about what a supporter of India Solarz was and had lauded Chatwal for bringing such a friend of India to meet with her and "asked to start working on the relationship."

Chatwal said Solarz had introduced him to Bill Clinton when the latter had declared his candidacy for the presidency and had told Clinton, 'These (the Indian-American community) are the people one day, who will definitely go very high up, and at that time, all he was looking for was $25,000 -- I am talking before the primaries."

"And we talked," the hotelier recalled. "I am the first one who gave them checks and the first one who started running after the Indian community to raise money for him (Clinton) in a big way."

Chatwal said when he had organised a fundraiser for Clinton to raise $25,000 in 1991, Indian friends he had called to contribute $500 a couple, had "called me crazy. They said, it is a recession, nobody will come, and getting $500 will be very tough."

But, he said, he had raised the money and with it, his friendship with the Clintons was established, and has endured since. He described it as a "permanent friendship."

After Clinton won the primaries, Chatwal remembered everyone was falling over themselves to contribute, "but the Clintons didn't forget who helped them before the primaries."

"We are friends forever, and that's the beauty of American politicians. They never leave you, unlike Indian politicians. They run away very fast," he said.

Chatwal said he had also helped then US Congressman Charles Schumer in his successful senate race against then Republican US Senator Alphonse D'Amato, and though he had promised Schumer $100,000, he had delivered over $200,000. Schumer has described Chatwal as the personification of 'the American Dream -- an immigrant who made it big.'

When Chatwal's son Vivek got married in a lavish ceremony at New York's Tavern on the Green restaurant in the presence of over 1,300 guests, the Clintons were on hand to celebrate along with Schumer; Solarz was the master of ceremonies.

In September 2000, Chatwal hosted a half-a-million dollar fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's senate campaign at his New York 7,000 square-feet penthouse. When she ran for the presidency, he created a group called Indian Americans for Hillary 2008 and hosted a major fundraiser in New York, which he has claimed garnered nearly $5 million for her.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC Washington, DC