Documents Suggest Officials Padded Expenses

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.

 

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