An official with the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) said Tuesday that staff there were specifically instructed not to investigate allegations of large-scale bribery inside the Health Ministry so that the unit could settle the case out of court.
On Sunday, ACU chief Om Yentieng told reporters that he would not be pursuing charges against any of the former health officials implicated by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in a years-long scheme in which they allegedly took a combined $450,000 in bribes from two multi-national mosquito net providers.
Despite a detailed report the Global Fund put out in November, filled with evidence of corruption including numerous emails between the health officials and company representatives, Mr. Yentieng said the ACU lacked enough evidence to pursue convictions. He also said that pushing the case through the courts would only serve to sully the reputations of both the government and the Fund.
On Tuesday, a senior ACU official familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the ACU never even bothered to launch its own investigation of the allegations—on orders from Mr. Yentieng.
“We received orders from the upper level not to investigate because he [Mr. Yentieng] wanted to solve the problem out of court,” the ACU official said. “The ACU just made a contract with those people to pay back the Global Fund and put an end to the problem.”
Mr. Yentieng could not be reached for comment. ACU spokesman Keo Remy declined to comment.
Mr. Yentieng never explained why the ACU lacked enough evidence to pursue a court case, or how he thought the evidence it had from the 84-page Global Fund report and its 134-page annex was insufficient for a criminal case.
The most heavily implicated—and highest ranking—official identified in the report was former National Malaria Center director Duong Socheat. Before his retirement in mid-2011, the report claims, he secured $351,000 in bribes from the mosquito net providers by instructing them to funnel money into the bank accounts of a “consultant” who did not actually exist. The report includes emails from Mr. Socheat providing the instructions for payment.
Days after the report came out, senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap was adamant that the ACU would investigate the allegations and that the courts must prosecute anyone credibly tainted.
“It is very essential to do an investigation and send the case to court,” he said at the time. “It doesn’t matter whether or not the alleged corrupt officials remain in position or resign…. They must face prosecution for committing corruption.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Yeap deferred to Mr. Yentieng’s judgment.
“I think the ACU is an independent institution, so it is his right to make any decision,” the lawmaker said. “I believe the ACU has a reason not to send this case to court and I have no right to comment on it.”
As a senior lawmaker for the ruling CPP, Mr. Yeap would have been instrumental in pushing through the law that created the ACU in early 2010. While the country’s foreign donors, who had been calling for the law for years, have praised its passage, it has also come under fire for not insisting that public officials make their finances public and not guaranteeing protection for whistleblowers.
On Tuesday, the day after Mr. Yentieng said the implicated health officials were safe from prosecution, the tiny, opposition-aligned Nationalism Party was quick to accuse the ACU of not following the letter of its own law.
In a statement, the party pointed out that the Anti-Corruption Law only gives the ACU the power to investigate a case, not to rule on its legal merits. Whether to prosecute, it says, is a decision strictly for the courts.
The cited article reads: “At the end of each investigation, the Anti-Corruption Unit shall submit all facts to the prosecutor for further action in conformity with the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedures.”
In its statement, the Nationalism Party argues that Mr. Yentieng overstepped his bounds.
“The law is the law, and there is no law for forgiving a crime,” it says. “Thieves should not be free from blame just because they give the stolen thing back to the owner.”
In the statement, the Nationalism Party calls for the Global Fund case to be sent to the prosecutor to be investigated according to the Criminal Code.
The ACU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the case was going nowhere.
“We have no plans to send this case to the court because we don’t have enough evidence,” he said.
The Global Fund declined to comment.
pheap@cambodiadaily.com, peter@cambodiadaily.com
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