The government’s anti-corruption czar said he would not pursue charges against former health officials accused of soliciting more than $450,000 in bribes to secure big contracts for two multinational mosquito net providers. He said the case lacked evidence and would hurt the government’s reputation.
Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) chief Om Yentieng revealed his decision on Sunday, four months after the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria released an 84-page report laying out a web of corruption inside the Health Ministry. The report came with a 134-page annex filled with incriminating emails and other details.
But Mr. Yentieng said the government would likely fail to secure any convictions if it pressed charges against the health officials, who have all since resigned or retired. Speaking with reporters on the sidelines of an unrelated event in Phnom Penh, he also urged the media to keep the news a secret.
“We recognize this case, but we don’t have enough evidence for the accusations,” Mr. Yentieng could be heard saying in an audio recording. “We think that if we send this case to court and rely on the evidence, we don’t have enough evidence.”
The ACU chief praised the work the Global Fund has financed in Cambodia—$331 million worth over the past 10 years. He said it still has “an excellent partner” in the Health Ministry. But he argued that pressing corruption claims through the courts, and losing, would only serve to sully both the Cambodian government and the Fund.
“If we send this case to court the evidence is not enough, so our reputation will be damaged and the Global Fund’s too,” he said. “So we need to defend their reputation, and the government would also be criticized, then how could the people trust the government anymore?”
After answering a reporter’s question about the case, he threatened to blacklist anyone who published what he had just said.
“I ask you not to publish about this case. If you do, I will not talk with any of you because this is a secret matter,” he said.
Despite the supposed lack of evidence to prosecute, Mr. Yentieng said the government was making progress in getting the ex-officials to pay the Global Fund back, as per the Fund’s request. But, he did not say how much of the $473,000 in bribes and misspent grant money had been paid back.
Global Fund spokesman Seth Faison would not specify, either. But of the three bodies implicated in the bribes and misspending—the National Malaria Center (CNM), the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs (NCHADS), and the NGO MediCam—only CNM was still in arrears, he said.
He declined to comment on the ACU’s claim that it lacked evidence to prosecute the alleged offenders.
Of the three bodies the Global Fund implicated, the National Malaria Center by far took the heaviest hit in its report.
Former NMC director Duong Socheat alone was accused of having taken $351,000 in bribes from the two mosquito net providers, Switzerland’s Vestergaard Frandsen and Sumitomo Chemical Singapore, over several years up until his retirement in 2011. Together, he and an undisclosed deputy took more than $410,000 in bribes to secure some $12 million in Global Fund grants for the two firms.
The result of a years-long probe, the Global Fund’s report details a system that Mr. Socheat set up with the firms to have them funnel the bribes into the account of relatives or consultants who did not actually exist.
“The inducements paid to the CNM were masked as commission payments to a ‘consultant’ or ‘agent,’ the creation of which was suggested by director, whom the suppliers hired to engage in business on their behalf in Cambodia,” the report says.
“The [investigators] uncovered no evidence to indicate that this agent ever existed, with the exception of representations by the CNM director that this was his relative,” the report continued. “The evidence clearly demonstrates that this agent served as a conduit for the improper payments in order to disguise the true beneficiaries of the money: CNM’s director and deputy director.”
The report includes excerpts of interviews with company officials admitting they knew they were misbehaving. The lengthy annex copies emails between Mr. Socheat and company representatives on how to make the payments.
Asked about the strength of the evidence in the report, Health Minister Mam Bunheng, who oversees both CNM and NCHADS, deferred to the ACU.
“We follow the rules and regulations of the law,” he said. Whether the implicated officials should be prosecuted “depends on the ACU.”
From the moment the report came out, health officials either deflected blame, downplayed the significance of the findings or questioned the size of the reported bribes.
But Pech Pisey, program director for Transparency International Cambodia, said he believed the Global Fund’s evidence was stronger than the ACU was letting on and, at the very least, it warranted further investigation.
“The findings from the Global Fund report to a large extent [are] credible. So we strongly encourage the authorities, including the ACU, to conduct a proper investigation,” he said. “Based on the findings, they should do further investigation…. We do not think it’s enough.”
Mr. Pisey said the ACU chief also had no good reason for asking the media to keep quiet about the story, especially since it affected the health sector.
Global Fund reported no direct harm from the bribes, and noted that all the mosquito nets were delivered as promised. It said the scheme probably did raise prices.