Documents obtained from the Ministry of Tourism this week indicate that ministry officials may have been claiming expenses for lavish restaurant meals that were never eaten and trips abroad that were never made.
Minister of Tourism Lay Prohas said Thursday that he does not believe that the documents from 2004 and 2005, leaked by a member of his own staff, are real.
“I don’t believe the finance department cheats the Ministry of Finance by claiming money without reason,” he said.
Several of the expense claims bear the signature of So Mara, Tourism Ministry undersecretary of state, who heads the ministry’s finance department.
So Mara said on Wednesday that only legitimate expense claims are approved by his office, and all expenditures are audited by the Ministry of Finance.
One of the leaked expense claims, dated Oct 12, 2005, bearing So Mara’s signature and printed on ministry stationery, requests payment of $164 to cover a bill a senior official had allegedly paid at Restaurant Le Soir de Phnom Penh on Monivong Boulevard for a meal eaten that day.
The $164 meal included chicken, quail, fish salad, a bottle of Johnny Walker, and two packets of 555 cigarettes, according to the bill.
Loch Darith, who is in charge of food and restaurant allowances for tourism ministry officials, said on Wednesday that the meal was held for Thai and Burmese delegates visiting ahead of the Water Festival in November.
According to an earlier receipt from the same restaurant, Le Soir, dated Sept 23, 2005, ministry officials ate and drank their way through $183. This time, the expenses included wildlife cuisine: deer and three grilled turtles, grilled beef and a bottle of Otard cognac.
According to the receipts, the two meals took place in 2005. However, a manager at Asia Palace Hotel on Monivong said Thursday that Restaurant Le Soir de Phnom Penh closed down in December 2003.
The restaurant was previously housed in what is now the Asia Palace Hotel, he said.
Loch Darith said he can vouch for the restaurant expense claims.
“The bills spent on food at Le Soir de Phnom Penh were real,” he said.
Asked about the restaurant bills, So Mara referred questions to tourism Secretary of State Thong Khon, who said he had no information about the meals.
Lay Prohas said he was surprised to see the restaurant bills and suspected they were fake.
“I am so surprised that my staff ordered Hennessy for their meals,” he said.
Lay Prohas said a disgruntled former staffer who is trying to frame his colleagues may have forged the bills.
The leaked documents also included a Feb 2, 2006, request by the ministry’s marketing and promotion department for $76,000 to send 14 Cambodian officials to visit India for a tourism “roadshow.”
According to the documents, So Mara eventually approved a sum of $82,000 for the trip, $6,000 more than requested by the department.
So Mara confirmed on Thursday that the India trip was authentic, but that it had been postponed as neither the Indian organizers nor Cambodia’s tourism ministry were prepared in time.
Although the trip has yet to be made, the finance ministry has disbursed the $82,000, So Mara said.
“We got finances for the trip,” he said. “The money will be used when the trip is ready.”
He also said that the finance department boosted the cost to $82,000 because the roadshow was going to be more expensive than initially anticipated.