ACC finds irregularities worth Nu 340.40mn in Buddha Dordenma case

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The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has found out irregularities worth Nu 340.40mn in the embezzlement case of Buddha Dordenma fund involving Lam Tshering Wangdi and Anim Damcho Choden.

The commission has forwarded the case to the Office of Attorney General (OAG) on September 13, appealing the OAG to prosecute Lam Tshering Wangdi and Anim Damcho Choden for their corrupt conduct in diverting public funds for personal enrichment under offences, including but not limited to, as prescribed in section 52, Section 75 of the Anti-Corruption Act of Bhutan 2011, Section 287 and Section 125 of the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004.

Background

ACC received complaint against Anim Damcho Choden alleging that she had amassed huge wealth through misappropriation of Buddha Dordenma Image Foundation (BDIF) fund.

The case was on the financial improprieties involved in the construction of 169ft bronze statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and peripheral structures at Kuensel Phodrang, Thimphu.

The project was partly funded by foreign donations and individual contributions that were mobilized by Lam Tsheirng Wangdi, the Chairman of Menjong Chothuen Tshogpa. Anim Damcho Choden was designated as the Project Manager.

BDIF, registered in Hongkong was looking after the project fund however, it was not registered under the Religious Organization Act of Bhutan 2007.

The ACC release said, in the initial phase, the government had steered the project and contributed in terms of providing land, construction of approach road, and other site infrastructure and amenities to start the project.

Another complaint lodged also alleged her for running a tourism business and bringing in tourist guests in the name of the project levying the government-approved tariff for that the tariff waiver was actually granted by the government.

The commission saw that it had both public interest cause as well as required legal basis to investigate the allegations and the investigation entailed detailed examination of all associated bank accounts including those in foreign jurisdictions and drawing connections with identified assets acquired by Anim Damcho Choden and Lam Tshering Wangdi during the period.

According to the commission’s press release, it says although, the investigation was commenced in 2016, due to many intervening circumstances, the investigation had to be suspended until the active operational phase of the investigation commenced from February 2018.

The ACC findings

To study the fund diversion, the commission’s investigation had consolidated and organized its finding along two timelines, one from 2004 to 2008 and another from 2009 to June 2018.

The investigation found that between 2004 and 2008, Lam Tshering Wangdi handled the project fund without maintaining proper record of collections and expenditures thereon.

During the phase, the government was building an approach road and other infrastructure at its own costs and the only major work needed to be financed out of the project fund was the construction of the seat (Zhug Thri).

The Zhug Thri work was directly contracted to M/s. Singye Construction Pvt Ltd and clearing works to M/s. Yeshey Clearing Agent.

The commission found out that except for two remittances that were credited into his personal account, all other remittances totaling about Nu 114.05mn had been received in the BDIF account maintained with the Bhutan National Bank Ltd (BNBL).

The total accumulated fund in the account including interest earned and other cash deposits amounted to about Nu 121.44mn.

However, the total expenditure attributable to the project amounted to only about Nu 44.97mn and Lam Tshering Wangdi failed to account about Nu 73.42mn, according to ACC. The closing balance of Nu 3.04mn was carried over to the next year 2009.

While, starting from 2009, it was found that unlike in the preceding period, Lam Tshering Wangdi started channeling many incoming foreign remittances meant for the project into his personal account evidently, after he was made to open Current Deposit Account (CD) with the Bank of Bhutan Ltd. (BoBL) specifically for the project.

One full time accountant recorded the transactions in the cashbook maintained by him and Lam Tshering Wangdi started operating and managing bank accounts in such a way that effectively allowed himself to retain exclusive control over how much of the incoming remittances can be appropriated to the project’s CD account.

Beginning 2009 up until June 2018, the Lam had received foreign remittance equivalent of Nu 366.47mn into the BDIF account.

The total accumulated fund in this account including opening balance, interest earned, and other cash/cheque deposits aggregated to about Nu 381.63mn.

While the project related expenditure amounted to about Nu 304.58mn excluding closing balance of Nu 0.44mn as at June 30, 2018, Lam Tshering Wangdi could not account the difference of about Nu 76.61mn.

In the overall scenario, concerning the BDIF, for the entire period from 2004 to June 2018, Lam Tshering Wangdi had received a total of 248 foreign remittances amounting to Nu 480.53mn into BDIF account.

Accounting the amount of interest generated, other cash/cheque deposits, and the total fund accumulated in this account aggregated to Nu 500.02mn.

From this total amount, about Nu 349.55mn could be attributed to the project. Excluding the balance of about Nu 0.44mn Lam could not account the use of about Nu 150.03mn.

In addition, he had received 91 remittances (89 after 2008 and two before 2008) from Malaysia and Singapore totaling Nu 277.40mn into his personal account in BNBL.

As of June 2018 total accumulated fund in this account including cash/cheque deposits, interest earned (pro-rated) aggregated to about Nu 282.97mn.

Investigation revealed an expenditure of Nu 92.60mn attributable to the project while balance of about Nu 190.37mncould not be accounted for.

Combining the unexplained amount from BDIF and from personal account, Lam Tshering Wangdi could not account/explain the utilization of about Nu 340.40mn.

Evidence showed that majority of the remittances that came into his was indeed donation for the project.

The investigation revealed that most of the funds withdrawn through project staff from the personal account of Lam ended in the hands of Anim Damcho.

The investigation found that Lam Tshering Wangdi and Anim Damcho acquired and registered several high value properties either for themselves or for their immediate relatives during the corresponding period and that they indeed used project funds in acquiring most of these personal properties. These properties included land, buildings vehicles and business ventures.

“Evidence show that Lam Tshering Wangdi was consciously aware of the Commission’s investigation powers, his obligation to be transparent and accountable regarding the use of funds,” ACC release states.

Moreover, it was found that he assisted in establishing and promoting business ventures of Anim Damcho by making his foreign sponsors believe that the business profit would go to the project, which in reality was not the case.

The commission concluded that the case merits consideration for prosecution by virtue of its evidence as well as the existence of public interest elements and that in doing so would benefit in creating transparent and accountable system in non-profit organizations and their future operations involving public donations.

“The commission believes that unabated corruption and malfeasance in charitable activities operating outside the regulatory or oversight framework under the banner of noble cause could seriously impair the reputation of the country besides bringing in other associated risks such as money laundering, tax evasion, abuse of official privileges and other undesirable elements,” states the ACC release.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu

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