In 2011, the Environment Ministry entered into a deal with the Ratana Cooperation and Construction company to swap its valuable 2,400-square-meter location on Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune for a 9,000-square-meter plot of land and a new headquarters 20 km away in the city’s Meanchey district.
Now, the ministry says it has returned the land and brand-new headquarters in Meanchey district to the Ratana Cooperation and Construction company. At the same time, the ministry has agreed to let Ratana retain its Sihanouk Boulevard headquarters, which is worth at least $14.4 million, according to property valuation figures from 2013.
The ministry now plans to pay $5 million to construct yet another building on state-owned land 1.5 km away from its current location.
Ministry officials declined to answer questions Thursday about who owns Ratana Cooperation and Construction, how much money had changed hands between the company and the ministry, or why the company now owns two large and valuable plots of land.
“The location of the Environment Ministry on Preah Sihanouk Boulevard belongs to the Ratana Cooperation company,” said Sem Saroeun, director-general of administration at the ministry. “The location of the building for the Environment Ministry on National Road 1 also belongs to the Ratana Cooperation because they did not give that building back to the Ministry of Environment.”
The land in Meanchey district now owned by Ratana was valued in 2012 at between $300 and $1,500 per square meter, making it worth at least $2.7 million.
Two officials at the Ministry of Environment, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, said Thursday that Ratana had paid a cash fee in a land swap deal under the former environment minister, Mok Mareth.
They were uncertain how much money had changed hands, but said that ministry employees were widely unhappy that Mr. Mareth had not distributed the cash among them, a common practice to appease employees after a land swap.
More recently, however, newly appointed Environment Minister Say Sam Al distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars among the ministry’s 586 employees.
“The new minister took the remaining money from the land swap to provide $500 each to the 586 ministry officials, including the minister, and more than 30 contracted officials got $100,” one of the employees said.
“All of the officials are satisfied with the actions taken by the new minister because he is equal to all officials. If the old minister still led the ministry, he would not have provided any money to officials and we would have had to move to a faraway location.”
Attempts to contact the Ratana company Thursday were unsuccessful.
Sao Sopheap, cabinet chief to Mr. Sam Al, said Thursday that construction of the new building on 5,000 square meters of land near NagaWorld Hotel and Casino would cost the ministry at least $5 million.