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‘Lottery King’ Santiago Martin’s saga: A life of political links and murky dealings

On April 30, officials from the Income Tax Department raided the properties of a man named Martin Santiago, who runs a lottery business. The search operation continued for four days and led to the seizure of Rs 5.8 crore in cash and Rs 24 crore worth gold and diamonds. Searches were simultaneously conducted in 70 locations across India, including 22 locations in Coimbatore.

But this isn’t the first time that the self-styled “lottery king” has fallen under authorities’ radar. Through his lottery business that began in Tamil Nadu before expanding to multiple states, Martin has caught the attention of law enforcement officials through his alleged dubious dealings. Along with his wife, he’s also maintained close ties to political leaders in Tamil Nadu.

Adding to the intrigue, the most recent investigation targeting Martin has now turned into a murder investigation, after one of Martin’s long-term employees was found dead a few hours after he was grilled by the I-T sleuths.

Here’s a look at Martin Santiago’s past business and political interests that made him the lottery business tycoon and why he’s making headlines.

The ‘Lottery King’

Martin Santiago, better known as ‘Lottery King’ Martin, is a business tycoon who built his empire by printing and selling lottery tickets. Having started out as a labourer in Yangon, Myanmar, he returned to India, starting his business in Tamil Nadu in 1988, and slowly expanded to Karnataka and Kerala. But in 2003, Martin had to take his business outside Tamil Nadu, after the state government banned lotteries.

This was when he shifted his focus to the north-east, where he started handling government lottery schemes. He then began to expand internationally, with business operations in Bhutan and Nepal, where he is allegedly the only distributor of lottery tickets. He is also now allegedly a monopoly player for lotteries in the north-east, with Martin Lottery Agencies Limited having a net worth of over Rs 7,000 crore.

He also owned music channel SS Music. 

Run-ins with law enforcement

In 2007, Martin’s business in Karnataka came under the police scanner for allegedly running an illegal lottery racket in the state with the help of police officials. With his business extending to Kerala, the state police also launched probe into his lottery trade.

In 2011, the CBI registered more than 30 cases against Martin and his close aides for cheating the Sikkim government.

According to the chargesheet filed by the CBI, Martin had cheated the Sikkim government to the tune of Rs 4,500 crore by allegedly selling lottery tickets on behalf of the Sikkim government in Kerala from 2005, but not paying the full amount of the sales to them. This ‘lottery scandal’ kicked up quite a storm in Kerala, after which the United Democratic Front government banned the online sale of Sikkim lotteries in the state for two years. After its probe in 2014, the CBI claimed that the scam enabled ticket buyers to convert their black money into white. The CBI case against Martin is still pending before the court, with the Lottery King out on bail. 

Political connections

Martin reportedly has powerful connections, and knows the who’s who of India’s political circles.

He hired Congress leader and senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi in 2010 to argue his case in court for the scam that came to light in 2007.

However, after Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government heavily slammed the Congress for their alleged support of a tainted businessman, Abhishek Manu Singhvi withdrew from the case that same year.

However, six years later, the Congress raised objections after MK Damodaran, a senior advocate who is close to sitting CM and CPI(M) leader Pinarayi Vijayan, appeared as Martin’s legal counsel in a case filed by Enforcement Department.   

It was also later discovered that Martin had donated Rs 2 crore to Deshabhimani, the CPI(M) mouthpiece. Following this, the CBI took charge in 2011.

Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, Martin was said to be close to senior DMK leaders. When former AIADMK chief and former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa came to power in 2011, many DMK leaders and sympathisers were booked for fraud and land grabbing cases. Among them was Martin, who was arrested and jailed in Vellore in 2012.

But Martin has been known to side with whoever is in power. An example of this tendency can be gleaned from a complaint filed by his wife Leema Rose Martin against DMK patriarch Karunanidhi’s daughter Selvi in 2012, alleging that a lottery agent close to Selvi framed Martin in a fake case. The move was construed to be strategic, given its timing.

When Martin was in prison, Leema started to consolidate the lottery business and establish herself as a powerful player in the industry. She went on to become the Vice General Secretary of the Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK), a party started by SRM founder TR Pachamuthu and had also shared the dais with then Prime Ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi at an election rally in Coimbatore ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. His son Charles Jose Martin joined the BJP in 2015 in the presence of BJP leader Ram Madhav.

Martin was also known to make generous contributions to the state exchequer in times of disasters. For example, after Cyclone Gaja ravaged the delta districts of Tamil Nadu in November 2018, he donated Rs 5 crore towards relief measures. He had also contributed money after Cyclone Vardah (2016) and the Chennai floods (2015) and claims to be one of the highest tax-payers in India.

The death of a long-time employee

The Income Tax search on his properties last week has given rise to another controversy, after one of Martin’s long-term staff members, Palanisami, was found dead.

An accounting staff member at Martin’s Homeopathy College in Coimbatore for over 20 years, Palanisami was found dead in a pond in Karamadai just hours after he was grilled by I-T officials on May 3. While the I-T department has maintained that Palanisami had appeared for questioning with an injury on his wrist, Palanisami’s family has alleged that there is a conspiracy behind his death.

The police have also registered an FIR for unnatural death and begun investigation. Leema, meanwhile, released a statement in her professional capacity and assured that she will assist the family in this hour of grief.

On Tuesday, Palanisami’s son Rohin Kumar filed a petition in the Madras High Court, seeking a CBCID probe into his father’s mysterious death. The court is scheduled to hear the case on Wednesday.

Source: The News Minute