The Tall Tale of the Court, the Clerk and the Cash

The Cambodian court system’s poor oversight proved useful for former clerk Kruoch Borath when he decided to “borrow” a wedge of money from a defendant in a civil case.

But when his plan went askew, the lack of documentation related to his financial windfall left him taking the rap for much more than he says he should.

Last week, in the visiting area of Prey Sar prison, about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh, Mr. Borath seemed none the worse for wear after his nine months in jail. He appeared well fed and healthy in a freshly laundered, blue pajama prison uniform. His short black hair, with just a hint of salt and pepper, was neatly trimmed. A large gold watch gleamed on his wrist.

Mr. Borath looked confident and relaxed as he joked with the guards before sitting down among the other prisoners being visited by their families.

The 40-year-old, who was formerly a clerk at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, is currently serving a four-and-a-half-year jail sentence after being found guilty of taking $250,000 belonging to businessman Suon Ly, a defendant involved in a business dispute whose case was before the court.

Mr. Borath maintained during an interview at Prey Sar that he just “borrowed” $75,000 of the quarter of a million dollars. The rest of the cash, he said, remains in the hands of Judge Ke Sakhorn, who at the time was the court’s deputy director. Judge Sakhorn fiercely denies that he has the missing cash.

Mr. Borath alleges that he and Judge Sakhorn agreed to split the money—with the clerk taking $75,000 and the judge taking $175,000. Mr. Borath denies the cash was intended as a bribe to win a case.

According to those involved, the $250,000 was to be held in trust by the court officials and used to settle a breach of contract case between Mr. Ly and another businessman.

Why the clerk and judge were given so much money to settle a case they were involved with—and not the competent lawyers involved in the dispute—has never been properly explained.

Mr. Borath also said from the jail that there are no records of any bank deposits or withdrawals related to the $250,000, and certainly none from the court’s own account at the National Bank of Cambodia, as the payments were “secret.”

And this is where the story of the judge, the clerk and the $250,000 gets even murkier.

According to Mr. Borath, he decided to give his cut of the cash to a friend to earn interest on it, but he didn’t know what the judge did with his amount.

“I lent the $75,000 to an associate and kept the interest,” Mr. Borath said during an interview in the prison where reporters were forbidden from taking notes or recording.

“I don’t know what Judge Sakhorn did with the other $175,000,” he said.

Mr. Borath said things started to go wrong for him when the businessmen settled their dispute out of court and Mr. Ly demanded his money back.

Mr. Borath, who was in the U.S. at the time, said he was reluctant to return to Cambodia, fearing he would be arrested. But he claimed to have called the prosecutor on the case, who allegedly assured him if he paid the money back, he would be in the clear. That didn’t turn out to be so.

Despite paying back $75,000 after coming back to Cambodia, Mr. Borath was arrested at a Phnom Penh karaoke bar in Chamkar Mon district in October and has been locked up since.

In May, he was convicted of a breach of trust charge and sentenced to four-and-a-half years jail.

Mr. Borath’s lawyer, Puth Theavy, said by telephone this week he had lodged an appeal against the sentence, however, a date for the hearing has yet to be set.

Mr. Theavy also said that Judge Sakhorn should take some responsibility for the case. “I understand that the judge must be responsible for the total cash because he signed documents with the clerk, thus each person must pay half,” he said.

“I have sufficient documents to clarify that the two people really signed to receive the total amount of cash,” he added.

While Judge Sakhorn admitted to authorizing Mr. Borath to take the $250,000 from the defendant, Mr. Ly, which was paid in six installments of $25,000 or $50,000 during 2011, the judge’s version of events is otherwise different from that of his former clerk, Mr. Borath.

During Mr. Borath’s trial in April, Judge Sakhorn—who is now deputy director of the Takeo Provincial Court—told the Phnom Penh Municipal Court he had never been in contact with the money.

“I told him [Mr. Borath] to deposit the money in the court’s bank account, but he didn’t and then accused me,” Judge Sakhorn said at the time. “I have never received any money.”

Judge Sakhorn said last week Mr. Borath had confessed in court to taking the money, and the case no longer concerned him.

“The money is on his hands because he confessed to the prosecutor,” Judge Sakhorn said, declining to comment on whether he had any records of deposits and withdrawals related to the cash.

“I did not authorize him [Mr. Borath] to withdraw the money from the court’s bank account, and his answer is only to release the burden,” he said.

The businessman at the center of the payment, Mr. Ly, could not be contacted for comment. Mr. Ly’s lawyer, Chong Eav Heng, said his client did not wish to comment on the matter, and that it was he who had passed the money on to the clerk and the judge.

“I took $250,000 for my client and gave it to the court but if the court did not pass this money to the plaintiff, this is a matter for the court,” he said.

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