Logging companies and the royalties they pay to the government will be investigated after Minister of Finance and Economy Keat Chhon uncovered more than $3 million in misdirected payments, said Uth Chhorn, auditor general of the National Audit Authority.
The groundbreaking audit would be the first special investigation conducted by the National Audit Authority, a new office created in January to audit government offices.
Uth Chhorn said his office is now finishing its regularly scheduled audit of the Ministry of Finance’s 2001 expenditures—its first general audit—and expects to deliver a report to the National Assembly in two to three weeks.
A team of auditors will then begin the logging investigation, he said, gathering documents from logging companies and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Suspicion fell on the royalty payments when it was learned in March that some logging companies were sending their royalty payments to each other rather than to the government.
Logging companies said they were merely saving time by compensating each other for business expenses that they would have otherwise billed to the government. But Keat Chhon said the payment scheme was a violation of the Financial Law.
An ad-hoc committee of Assembly lawmakers was to study the problem, but member Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party legislator, said the committee amended the forestry law to allow the controversial payments to continue.
“It’s still the same,” Son Chhay said. “Whatever the Ministry of Finance found is no longer illegal.”
Son Chhay said he was skeptical that the National Audit Authority would conduct an independent audit since some of the royalty payments apparently went to powerful government officials.
“I doubt that this man [Uth Chhorn] will be able to do anything about it,” he said.
Uth Chhorn said his staff follow a code of conduct that forbids taking bribes, making the audits less likely to be subverted.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)