Directors general came and went, but the power and influence that the health directorate driver gained stayed.
Through his unholy alliance with key officials at the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), Abdul Malek, who studied up to class 8, had powers that could be compared to those of the DG.
"Be it a transfer request or a coveted work order, people would turn up to Malek. They knew Malek would get things done," said a line director, wishing not to be named.
The staggering wealth accumulated by Malek and him becoming what many called the shadow DG have been the talk of the town after Rab arrested him last week. Investigations revealed that he has wealth valued at no less than Tk 1,000 crore.
The Daily Star visited the DGHS several times, talked to over a dozen employees of different levels, and officials of the investigating agencies, but all they could tell is how the health directorate succumbed to the influence of a grade IV employee. Nobody opened up about Malek's partners in crime.
"The case of Malek is just the tip of the iceberg. There are even more corrupt people at the DGHS. Like him, some grade III and IV employees might get caught. But DGs, ADGs, and line directors will remain beyond reach," said a top official of the DGHS.
Malek, now aged around 60, formed a driver's association and became its president only to influence the drivers' recruitment and transfers.
Some of the DGHS officials did not raise a voice against him because they were afraid while others only made him stronger, according to sources.
Even the immediate past DG, Dr Abul Kalam Azad, chose not to bother Malek. This frustrated many doctors and top officials.
It is a custom at the DGHS to place wreaths at the sculpture of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the DGHS premises on August 15. Over the years, the DG accompanied by other top officials placed the wreath.
In recent years, Malek started accompanying the DG. "Many doctors felt insulted and they refrained from joining the programme," said an official.
Malek used to know every move made at the DGHS. A section of the staff members and officers used to give him the information.
Two administrative officers, two personal assistants of top officials and several office assistants joined hands with Malek to lobby for appointments and transfers of officers and other employees at the DGHS, the official said.
Mohammad Shahjahan, personal assistant to the DG, used to inform Malek about every move the DG made at the office, the source added.
An employee of the Institute of Public Health, which operates under the DGHS, said two administrative officers and one store keeper of the institute used to inform Malek about important files and documents.
Malek knew how to capitalise on the information and make money.
Whenever an officer disagreed with Malek, he fed newspapers information against the officer and made sure everyone read the news when it got published.
"This is why officials did not cross him," a source said.
Through lobbying, he not only gained large amounts of money and assets, but also reportedly had 27 of his relatives recruited at the DGHS.
Malek's properties include 24 flats in three multi-storey buildings he owns in the capital and a dairy firm, all of which has a combined value of over Tk 100 crore, according to Rab.
Malek's name was in a list made by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in early 2019 of 45 grade III and IV health sector employees who were possibly involved in corruption.
THE RISE OF MALEK'S WEALTH
Malek started the job in 1982. He first tasted power in early 2000 when Syed Modasser Ali was the DG. He became a close aide of Modasser and started exercising power.
Sources in law enforcement agencies said the driver started making a fortune in 2009 when he chauffeured around the then DGHS chief Prof Shah Monir Hossain.
Malek successfully lobbied for the appointment of over 100 assistant directors in upazilas and earned over several crores, an officer said, preferring anonymity.
Shah Monir also got financial benefits from Malek's lobbying, he added.
Khondokar Md Shefayetullah replaced Shah Monir in 2010 and worked there until 2015.
Shefayetullah opened a canteen for the grade III and IV employees.
Malek took over the canteen soon after it was launched and made it office space, sources said.
In recent years, he was the driver of Dr AHM Enayet Hossain, who was an additional director general at DGHS. Soon after Enayet became the DG of Directorate General of Medical Education, Malek also got transferred and continued to be his chauffeur.
Besides, Malek had always maintained good relations with several leaders of the Bangladesh Medical Association, especially with its president Mustafa Jalal Mohiuddin.
Contacted, Mohiuddin said, "I don't know Malek."
Dr Shah Munir said, "I was the DG and he was my driver. Is it possible for me to have a good relationship with him? I was not aware of his wealth. I just learnt everything from the media.
"He knows how he gained wealth. But why was my name implicated? This is embarrassing."
Contacted, Enayet Hossain said Malek used to drive his official vehicle for around four years.
"I was not involved in any job appointment and procurement during the time he was my driver," he said.
"The relation was very formal and minimal."
The Daily Star could not reach the immediate past DG Prof Azad for comment.
Prof Dr Abul Bashar Mohammad Khurshid Alam, the current DGHS boss, said, "No one will be spared if found engaged in any unlawful activities."
Malek had not accumulated his wealth in a day, he added.
"More people will face the music in the coming days."
A three-member ACC team, headed by a deputy director, was tasked to probe the allegations against Malek and 44 DGHS staff members.
ACC Director Kazi Safiqul Alam said they made the move after the corruption of Abzal Hossain, administration officer at the Institute of Health Technology of DGHS, came to the fore.
The ACC found over Tk 284 crore in different bank accounts of Abzal and his wife.
Asked about the investigation against Malek and the others, Safiqul said the ACC had filed 17 cases on the basis of enquiries against the 45 suspects.
"When it comes to illegal wealth, we need to do a pre-enquiry to confirm the allegation. That's why it takes time," he added.
Between 70 and 80, mostly grade III and IV, health sector employees are now under the ACC scanner.
The ACC last week filed a case against former DGHS director and principal of the Institute of Health Technology M Aminul Hasan, DGHS Deputy Director Yunus Ali, Assistant Director Dr Shafiur Rahman and Research Officer Dr Didarul Islam in connection with the Regent Hospital scam.
A top ACC officer said, "Corruption by top officials is more visible and we've recently lodged cases against some of them. But these grade III and IV employees somehow stayed under the radar… We are trying to break their syndicate everywhere."