When Hong Mong Heng, the owner of timber processing firm Brightway Furniture, applied to renew his wood export license in February, he had no reason to doubt it would be rubber-stamped.
So when the Commerce Ministry rejected the paperwork, revealing that his company was being monitored on suspicion of falsifying documents to export luxury wood, Mr. Mong Heng was taken aback.
“I immediately lodged a complaint with the Interior Ministry’s penal police bureau to arrest the forger,” he said.
Mr. Mong Heng did not realize at the time that his company’s name had been used in a sophisticated timber-smuggling racket that illegally exported more than 300,000 cubic meters of luxury timber from Cambodia into Vietnam before the government caught on to it.
At its center was a Cambodian diplomat, Taing Sok Ngy, the former deputy consul-general to Ho Chi Minh City, who is accused of producing counterfeit letters that purported to authorize the export of timber to Vietnam.
The case has drawn the attention of the highest echelons of government, with intervention from Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong and even Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to documents submitted to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Following Mr. Sok Ngy’s arrest at a restaurant on June 19, the 36-year-old was charged with forging a public document and placed in provisional detention. At the time, police would not reveal the details of the case or name businesses involved.
But more arrests came in early September following a raid of two Phnom Penh homes that uncovered a trove of fraudulent government seals and documents, including more than 1,000 rubber stamps bearing the seals of—among others—the ministries of finance, foreign affairs and justice.
One of the home’s owners, Nov Sakhorn, 52, was charged along with Chab Vanna, 51, and Soum Udomreaksmey, 24, with forging public documents.
In an interview late last month, Lieutenant General Mok Chito, the director of the Interior Ministry’s central judicial department who is overseeing the investigation into the fraud ring, said Mr. Sakhorn “could forge everything.”
“Any documents involved with official notification, he would produce it,” Lt. Gen. Chito said.
Among the seized haul of documents from Mr. Sokhorn’s home were fake papers reportedly used to illegally transport luxury wood out of Cambodia using the names of several companies already operating in the country.
Court documents obtained last month show that two months before Mr. Mong Heng set alarm bells ringing in the Interior Ministry, Mr. Chanthol had contacted Mr. Hun Sen for advice after finding that letters had been forged in the name of the ministry to facilitate the export of wood from Cambodia to Vietnam.
“Please seek to arrest the forgers to be punished by the laws,” Mr. Hun Sen commented in a handwritten note on the margin of Mr. Chanthol’s request on December 24, the day after receiving the correspondence.
The documents show that Mr. Chanthol also requested Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s intervention, asking him to alert his Vietnamese counterpart to a forgery supposedly giving Angkor Plywood Company permission to export 19,144 cubic meters of wood across the border. It was at this time that Brightway Furniture also fell under the government’s suspicion.
After uncovering three more forged letters allegedly penned by Mr. Sok Ngy giving companies permission to move large quantities of wood into Vietnam, Mr. Namhong also turned to the prime minister for guidance.
“In case the Consul General, as mentioned in the report, has issued the letters, it must be annulled and the Consul General must be called back to the country, then disciplined by administrative means or lodge a complaint to the court,” Mr. Hun Sen noted, again in handwriting, on Mr. Namhong’s report, dated February 13.
The forgeries, it seemed, were attempting to circumvent a bilateral agreement between the two countries, signed in December 2013 in Hanoi, to tackle the illegal export of forestry goods. In practical terms, the accord means that every shipment of processed timber to Vietnam now requires advance notice from Cambodia’s Commerce Ministry and Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade.
“As the case of Taing Sok Ngy, consul, has aggressively and seriously violated the law, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation would like to send this case to the court to punish him in accordance with the laws,” Mr. Namhong wrote on February 19 to Mr. Hun Sen, who subsequently called for legal action to be taken.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong declined to comment on the case. Mr. Chanthol, the commerce minister, did not respond to a request for comment.
The court documents reveal that Interior Ministry investigators uncovered forged documents allowing 14 firms to export a total of 209,703 cubic meters of luxury wood from Cambodia into Vietnam.
A lawyer representing the Commerce Ministry, Long Norrin, then traveled with a team from the ministry to Vietnam in early 2014 to conduct further investigations and discovered an additional seven forged documents at Cambodia’s consular offices in Ho Chi Minh City, which permitted the export of more than 130,000 cubic meters of timber.
A total of twenty-three firms or individuals, including Brightway Furniture, are listed in the court submissions as appearing on forged letters, dating between late 2013 and early 2014, purporting to give them permission to export more than 339,700 cubic meters of luxury wood to Vietnam.
None of the owners of those firms is currently facing criminal charges over the case, according to police.
Attempts to contact the firms have been unsuccessful, while the Commerce Ministry’s lawyer, Mr. Norrin, declined to discuss whether any wood was ever exported to Vietnam on the strength of the forged documents.
Pall Sothy, deputy bureau chief at the Interior Ministry’s minor crimes department, said last month that he had questioned several business people named in the fake documents, but refused to reveal the outcome, citing the confidentiality of the investigation.
To date, Mr. Sothy said, the businesses involved in the case—which stood to make millions from the transport of timber—are simply being listed as a victims of fraud in the timber smuggling ring.
“We do not have a conclusion yet about those companies,” he said.