Christian Cooperative Thrift and Credit Union members wait for the result of the election on Jan. 22. (Photo supplied)
Newly elected leaders aim to revive the old glory of a Christian cooperative that ran into controversy due to massive corruption and embezzlement by board members and staff.
The Christian Cooperative Thrift and Credit Union, based in Bangladesh's southeastern port city of Chittagong, held a poll on Jan. 22 to elect a new nine-member governing board for the next three years.
A reformist panel, which has been vocal against corruption and promised to get back embezzled funds of the cooperative, won the election by a landslide.
“The election was peaceful and fair. My entire panel has been selected with huge support, I hope to be able to work to meet the expectations of members in the coming days,” newly elected chairman Hubert Bepari told UCA News.
Bepari, a Catholic and accountant of church-run St. Placid’s High School in Chittagong, said the first thing they would like to accomplish is regain the confidence of members.
“Our biggest challenge is to reconnect with members to gain their confidence and make them credit-oriented. Their confidence has been shattered due to corruption. The main task of the new committee is to recover the money that has been embezzled. We are confident that we can revive the organization by collaborating with the members,” he said.
The cooperative was set up in 1956 by Catholic Holy Cross missionary Father Henry Paul Obet, making it one of the oldest cooperatives in the country.
By 2019, the cooperative had 3,900 members, mostly Catholics from three parishes — Our Lady of Holy Rosary Cathedral Church of Patherghata, Church of the Immaculate Conception of Jamal Khan and Miriam Church of Diang. Total movable and immovable assets stood at 230 million taka (US$2.71 million).
However, in March 2019 an audit team from the Cooperative Credit Union League of Bangladesh (CCULB), the independent apex body of cooperatives, found massive corruption and fund misappropriation in the organization.
Its report concluded that the society had become bankrupt and accused office manager Probal Dio and current and previous board members of massive corruption including fund embezzlement, loan defaulting and withdrawal of fake loans. It also alleged previous boards made no efforts to bring back embezzled money and instead collaborated with Dio in anomalies.
The allegations of corruption and bankruptcy made headlines in several national media outlets and divided the Christian community in Chittagong.
A group of aggrieved members formed a forum called The Movement for Rescue of the Christian Cooperative Thrift and Credit Union to fight for justice and revival of the organization. The election and new executive managing body is a result of this forum.
John Samaddar, president of the Chittagong Unit of Bangladesh Christian Association, is hopeful that the new board can move the organization forward.
“I think the new faces of our management can do well to recover our credit union and they will win back the trust of our members. On the other hand, the Department of Cooperatives should take necessary steps against those involved in fund embezzlement and misappropriation of power so that no one dares to commit such crimes in future,” Samaddar told UCA News.
He also urged the church authorities to make efforts to keep the organization clean in future.
“The Church has no legal authority but they can exert their moral authority to unite people for good causes and not let such untoward incidents happen again,” he added.
The newly elected board has good and energetic people who are capable of reviving the cooperative, said Father Leonard C. Rebeiro, administrator of Chittagong Archdiocese.
“The election has been held after many ups and downs in the organization. The new board members, who have a track record of good faith, will be able to turn it back again with the objective of fostering unity among the people,” Father Rebeiro told UCA News.
Sheikh Kamal Hossain, deputy registrar of the Department of Cooperatives in Chittagong, wants to see the organization prosper but also legal action taken against those responsible for corruption.
“We have already ordered the credit union to sue three persons under criminal law for corruption. If they do that, we will help the credit members to get justice. Our investigations are ongoing. We will also take legal action once it is complete,” Hossain told UCA News.