20 November 2022

Public servant, contractor sentenced for conspiring to defraud Department of Finance

| Albert McKnight
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Two men leaving court

Abdul “Alex” Aziz El-Debel (left) and Raminder Singh Kahlon leave the court during their trial earlier this year. Photos: Albert McKnight.

It was probably greed that caused two intelligent, high-achieving men to conspire to defraud the Department of Finance, which ultimately ruined their reputations and harmed their families’ lives, a justice said at their sentencing.

Abdul ‘Alex’ Aziz El-Debel and Raminder Singh Kahlon were found guilty earlier this year at the end of a lengthy ACT Supreme Court jury trial.

While Justice Michael Elkaim said what they had done “involved the infiltration and manipulation of a public organisation”, he told the court on Tuesday (15 November) that he would not send them to jail when there was almost total speculation on the effects of the crime and the extent of their gain.

But he confirmed each of their convictions and sentenced them to three-and-a-half year’s jail to be served via an intensive corrections order, a community-based sentence, along with 300 hours of community service.

Justice Elkaim said El-Debel had held a senior position in the Department of Finance and his tasks included procurement of personnel for IT departments. As part of this, he advised evaluation panels making recommendations on candidates.

Kahlon was a contractor to the department. His company was called Algoram, which put forward subcontractors for IT projects.

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Successful subcontractors would usually be remunerated by payment from the department to the company which would deduct a margin – essentially a commission – before passing the balance onto them.

Justice Elkaim said the essence of the conspiracy was that El-Debel and Kahlon would facilitate the procurement process to the advantage of candidates that the company had put forward. Their gain was in the margin.

He said the Crown had been correct when it submitted that the candidates who were not successful, because of the unlawful influence, were victims of the conspiracy and that the selection panels were deprived of the opportunity to assess all candidates equally fairly.

Justice Elkaim also said the jury must have found the name of Algoram to have been made up of the defendants’ own names.

But he said while obtaining the margins was illegal, the amounts did not come at a cost to the department because the amounts it paid would have been paid to whichever of the many companies had been successful in the procurement process.

He said the questions of how much money the unlawful activity produced and how much money was paid to El-Debel could not be proven.

Also, he said there was no suggestion that the candidates Algoram put forward were unsuitable for their roles. As the conspiracy was not constantly operating over 2019 and 2020, it ran on a “part-time” basis.

“Ultimately, I am faced with sentencing two intelligent, high-achieving, respected family men who have, probably through greed, ruined their reputations and harmed their families’ lives,” Justice Elkaim said.

El-Debel, 50, started in the public service in 2005 and worked his way into senior executive-level positions, including acting assistant secretary. He then helped his wife with her restaurant when he was suspended due to this case.

The court heard that if 38-year-old Kahlon was imprisoned, his wife and child would likely return to India.

READ ALSO Justice takes ‘unusual course’ in sentencing former CSIRO fraudster

Both men have maintained their innocence, with El-Debel telling the author of a court report his actions had actually reduced expenses for the Commonwealth, and he felt “you should be praised for making decisions as a director of finance for saving costs to taxpayers”.

“He may be right. Unfortunately, he did it in the wrong way and, even if to an unknown extent, to his own benefit,” Justice Elkaim said.

At the end of a four-week trial that started in June 2022, a jury found the pair guilty on charges of conspiring with each other, and allegedly a third man, to dishonestly obtain a gain from the Commonwealth between March 2019 and June 2020.

They had pleaded not guilty. In the trial’s closing submissions from Crown Prosecutor David Staehli SC, he claimed the three men did not try to install their “dingbats” into the department but contractors with the requisite qualifications.

When Kahlon’s barrister Matthew Kalyk gave his closings, he argued if a candidate put forward by his client was selected by the department, it was because the department had chosen that candidate as the most suitable for the role.

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