No Prosecution for Disgraced Health Official

The country’s anti-corruption czar on Tuesday said the former director of the National Malaria Center (CNM) must pay back the $351,000 in bribes he took in exchange for mosquito net contracts—effectively admitting the ex-director’s guilt—but that he would not be prosecuted.

Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) chairman Om Yentieng said the government could not take Duong Socheat, now an adviser to CPP Senate President Say Chhum, to court because his alleged crimes predated the Anti-Corruption Law. It was at least the third excuse Mr. Yentieng has proffered for the government’s refusal to prosecute the former malaria center chief.

In 2013, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria released the results of a yearslong investigation, accusing Mr. Socheat of taking the bulk of some $410,000 in bribes to secure $12 million in Global Fund grants for a pair of foreign mosquito net providers over several years. The ACU eventually opened its own investigation and said it was probing Mr. Socheat’s bank accounts as recently as June.

On Tuesday, Mr. Yentieng said the ACU’s investigation was finished and that the Global Fund was happy with the results.

“We already closed the case,” he said. “The Global Fund has received our investigation. Although it took two years, they said it was correct. Now, they are continuing to give assistance to the Royal Government of Cambodia as usual.”

Mr. Yentieng would not elaborate on the ACU’s findings. Asked what legal action the government would take against Mr. Socheat, he said it could not take any, as the alleged crimes were too old.

“Because the law came into effect after,” the chairman said, apparently referring to the Anti-Corruption Law, which established the ACU. “So we cannot take the case to court. But we have told Mr. Socheat to pay back the money in accordance with the Global Fund’s internal rules.”

King Norodom Sihamoni signed off on the Anti-Corruption Law in April 2010. According to the Global Fund investigation, Mr. Socheat was taking bribes at least as late as July 2010. He retired from the Malaria Center about a year later.

In March 2014, Mr. Yentieng said the government could not prosecute Mr. Socheat because the evidence against him was too weak and because losing the case would hurt the reputations of both the Cambodian government and the Global Fund.

Transparency International Cambodia director Preap Kol said Tuesday that the government should be able to prosecute cases of official corruption under laws predating the Anti-Corruption Law.

“I would think that there were existing laws before the Anti-Corruption Law that could be used. There was the criminal code,” he said. “I’m sure that other laws existed before that could be used to punish such officials.”

Mr. Kol said that statute of limitations did exist for some minor crimes, including bribery up to about $600,000. But he added that the limit was 10 years, putting Mr. Socheat’s alleged crimes—which date back to 2006—well within that period.

He said letting the former director pay his way out of a court case sent a dangerous message to other officials.

Mr. Socheat could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He has declined to comment on the allegations against him since they surfaced.

Global Fund spokesman Seth Faison declined to comment on the ACU’s decision not to pursue Mr. Socheat’s prosecution. But he said that all the bribes and misspent grant funds uncovered by its investigation had been paid back in full by the Cambodian government.

The Global Fund’s 2013 report detailed a system that Mr. Socheat set up with the net providers that funneled the bribes into the accounts 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 said.

“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 mosquito-net company officials admitting that they knew they were misbehaving. The lengthy annex includes copies of emails between Mr. Socheat and company representatives on how to make the payments.

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