The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday sentenced in absentia a former U.S. diplomat to the U.N., Sichan Siv, and three former associates to one year in prison for defrauding a dentist who said she was duped into investing in an agricultural firm that never launched.
The court also ordered Mr. Siv, Richer San, Thomas Willems and the estate of the late William Nojay to return the $1 million investment and pay about $75,000 in compensation to plaintiff Eng Lykuong, a dentist in Phnom Penh.
Ms. Lykuong invested the money in agricultural startup Akra Agricultural Partners, but claims the company turned out to be a sham. The defendants have each denied wrongdoing, stating that they attempted to start a legitimate business that failed to get off the ground.
Kheng Ly, a defense lawyer for Mr. Siv and Mr. San, said Thursday’s verdict was unjust and he would discuss with his clients whether they would appeal.
“My clients were staff and this is not a case of fraud. It should be a breach of trust because her money was transferred into a U.S. bank account,” he said, referring to Ms. Lykuong’s wiring of money to Akra in three installments from 2012 to 2013 in exchange for company shares. “It should be settled in the U.S. and they have to ask for an audit.”
During trial testimony last month, Ms. Lykuong said she was never given documents showing that she was an Akra shareholder, and that regardless, the company had never actually operated in the U.S. despite being registered there.
On Thursday, she welcomed the court’s decision.
“I’m satisfied…because I was the victim. They cheated me out of my money,” she said. “They organized as a group to steal my money. It was not breach of trust.”
The verdict follows the filing of a federal civil case in Texas earlier this month by Ms. Lykuong, in which the four defendants and Sithea San, Mr. San’s wife, were again accused of defrauding Ms. Lykuong by misrepresenting the company’s finances and misappropriating her money, spending it on an office villa, two cars and staff salaries, according to the lawsuit.
Two of the three living defendants sentenced on Thursday reside in Texas —making a ruling by a court there more likely to be enforced successfully, Ms. Lykuong has said. In the U.S. lawsuit, she is seeking the return of her $1 million investment, plus punitive damages and compensation for additional fees.
In a copy of an investment document that Mr. San emailed to Ms. Lykuong in August 2013, Mr. Siv was named as the “Chairman of Akra,” the lawsuit says. Mr. Siv was an ambassador to the U.N.’s economic and social council under the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush. He currently lives in San Antonio, where the civil complaint was filed.
According to Ministry of Commerce business registry records compiled by corporate watchdog Global Witness, as of February, Mr. Siv was listed as Akra’s “chairperson.” He could not be reached on Thursday for comment.
Mr. San and Ms. San are both Cambodian and American citizens, who split their time between Phnom Penh and Bellflower, California. The Akra investment document referred to Mr. San as the company’s “Vice-President of and Director of business development,” the complaint says. He was released on bail in October 2014, after having been imprisoned for about six weeks in Cambodia in relation to the fraud case—the only defendant of the group to spend time in jail.
In testimony at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in July last year, Mr. San said he was just an Akra employee and directed Ms. Lykuong to wire her $1 million investment into a bank account in Rochester, New York, belonging to William Nojay at the behest of Mr. Willems.
“I was staff. I do not have the right to sign anything and I just followed my boss’ orders,” Mr. San told the court at the time.
Mr. Willems, the former director of Cambodia International Education Support Foundation-USA, an NGO, was “represented to be the President and Chief Executive Officer” of Akra. An American businessman, he also resides in San Antonio, according to the U.S. lawsuit.
A former New York state legislator and attorney, William Nojay committed suicide last month, on the same day he was due to face fraud charges in federal court. He was said to be Akra’s secretary-treasurer and “Vice-President of and Director of business development.”
“We’re really not doing much business” in Cambodia, he said in a September 2014 interview with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “We’ve spent a year and a half looking at things we might do. But we’re not actually trading anything or making anything there.”
Mr. Willems’ attorney in Cambodia declined to comment on Thursday’s verdict. A representative of William Nojay’s estate could not be reached.
Ms. Lykuong said on Thursday that she hoped the cases in Cambodia and the U.S. would prevent the defendants from taking advantage of other investors.
“I want to disclose that they are guilty and deceitful people,” she said.
narim@cambodiadaily.com
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