A malaria worker attaches a mosquito warning sign to a hut in a Pailin province village in 2012. AFP
Graft rampant at malaria centre, documents suggest
Thu, 19 May 2016 ppp
Stuart White and Bun Sengkong
Nearly three years after the National Malaria Centre was rocked by a $400,000 bribery scandal, the body remains riddled with graft, according to documentary evidence and Ministry of Health insiders, operating in what has been called a “culture” of nepotism and fraud.
Documents obtained by the Post, along with extensive interviews with several Ministry of Health officials with nearly 60 years of service between them, indicate that mid-level officials within the National Centre for Parasitology, Entomology and Malaria Control (CNM) have used their positions to enrich their family members and themselves with misappropriated donations.
In 2013, former centre director Duong Socheat and another top official at the CNM were found to have taken about $410,000 in “commissions” in exchange for handing out millions in lucrative procurement contracts paid for by the multibillion-dollar Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Subsequently, the Global Fund demanded CNM staff file receipts as proof of travel, but the CNM refused. A source close to the Global Fund last year claimed the CNM had taken the negotiations “hostage”, refusing to budge and leaving millions in grant money to sit idle for more than a year.
The impasse finally came to an end last December, with the Global Fund backing down from its demand and releasing the money, though new evidence indicates that they were right to be suspicious.
Since the 2013 scandal, after donors’ insistence on stricter oversight of funds, the graft has shifted away from large-scale procurement deals, with unit heads at the centre now using their positions to dole out contractor jobs – listed on official rolls as “drivers” – to unqualified family members, who pocket substantial travel allowances.
Documents show that some of the financial impropriety still involves Global Fund money, with a hefty portion also coming from the health NGO FHI 360.
Dozens of travel expense requests – all of them signed by current CNM director Huy Rekol or, to a much lesser extent, his predecessor Chor Meng Chu – show, among other things, multiple mission trips to the provinces in which three of four participants are “drivers” or have no official position with the centre or ministry; at least one trip in which a unit head, his brother-in-law and another official claimed per diems twice for the same travel period from separate donors; and even trips in which a unit chief’s son is listed as simultaneously being in two different provinces, hours apart, for days at a time.
At the heart of the problem, say the ministry insiders – all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions – is the system of nepotism that has been allowed to flourish under Rekol.
“It became worse and worse,” one ministry official said. “It became a culture of nepotism and corruption.”
“It’s gotten worse since Huy Rekol became director.”
According to another ministry official, Rekol is fond of saying that some of those accused of corruption are like “family”. One of those officials, and the one against whom some the most serious charges are levelled, is Math Imran, the chief of the administrative bureau within the CNM as of at least late last year.
According to the insiders’ accounts, while he was still deputy admin chief, Imran secured contracts for at least six family members and friends, including his sons, Math Safari and Ran Sany; his younger brother Math Hakim; and a nephew, Ton Samfanna.
Safari – who the insiders say has no medical expertise, and has a contractor position as a driver with the Ministry of Health – appears on numerous travel documents for technical missions.
One travel request form from March of 2015 lists him as part of a team travelling to Kampong Cham province – on a mission that already had another driver – for one week to conduct deworming training, a trip funded by FHI 360.
A separate document lists him on yet another trip, paid for by the Global Fund – also with its own driver – in Pailin province, 420 kilometres away, for six of the same days.
Another travel request form from February 2015 shows Safari on an FHI 360-funded trip to Takeo – accompanied by another driver and two other staffers with no medical expertise, according to one insider – to conduct educational seminars on deworming for seven days.
A separate form lists him as part of a Global Fund-financed trip to study the efficacy of a topical ointment for two of those same days in Pursat province, some 270 kilometres away.
While both sets of documents raise the question of how Safari could be in both places at once, sources within the ministry say that he and other contractors linked to Imran sometimes don’t go on assigned trips at all.
One source with intimate knowledge of the matter said they were personally aware of four different occasions on which Safari’s name appeared on paperwork for missions he did not attend.
According to the source: “Admin staff never go on the missions.”
“Math Imran puts their names down, and Math Imran deducts the per diem,” the source said.
“For example, they got $100 for the whole mission, Math Imran gives them only $40, and the rest is for Math Imran. That’s why Math Imran puts the admin staff on the missions.”
A separate source said they had personal knowledge of Math Imran also putting the names of other staffers on mission paperwork without their knowledge, only to pocket the per diems for himself. However, new restrictions implemented in the last few months have prevented him from continuing the practices with Global Fund money, the source noted.
A motorist travels past the National Centre for Parasitology, Entomology and Malaria Control yesterday afternoon in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. Pha Lina
When the Global Fund forbade administrative staff from going on technical missions, the sources said, Imran simply attached his relatives to other departments.
In an interview last week, Imran acknowledged hiring family members as contractors, saying they were given one-year renewable contracts.
“When there is a lack of staff, we [hire] them for use for a year, which is acknowledged by the ministry. It is a small thing,” he said.
Imran also acknowledged that his family members received per diems as part of their work but insisted their actual salaries were insignificant.
“Their per diems are like what I said,” $20 a day up through mid-2015, when rates increased to $34 a day, Imran said. But, he added, “the ministry acknowledged [them] and paid them only 140,000 [about $35] riel per month. So consider that!”
Imran hung up on a reporter before he could be asked about the other allegations, and subsequent calls went unanswered.
Allegations of nepotism don’t end with Math Imran, however. His former boss, ex-administration chief and current CNM deputy director Muth Sinuon – who also was once de facto head of the deworming and laboratory units – is also accused of doling out contracts to family members and loyalists, ministry sources say.
Sinuon is accused of having secured contractor slots for at least four family members – two brothers-in-law, Van Nhil and Yos Sokha; a sister-in-law, Sin Sileang; and a niece, Van Moliden.
Insiders also accuse Sinuon of stacking mission trips with relatives, perhaps even more aggressively than Math Imran.
One travel form from July of 2014 lays out an FHI 360-funded trip to Takeo to conduct a study on stool samples for intestinal parasite research.
It bears the name of only one technical staffer, while also listing Nhil and Sileang – both contracted as drivers – despite a fourth name on the document being specifically marked “driver”.
Other FHI-funded trips in 2015, to Takeo and to Preah Vihear to conduct trainings on anti-parasite medications, also list only one expert alongside Nhil and Moliden – whose position does not appear on CNM or ministry rolls, but who insiders say works as a CNM contractor, and received supplemental pay from FHI and Global Fund grants simultaneously, in contravention of regulations.
The contractors linked to Sinuon are prolific travellers. Sin Sileang, documents show, took multiple trips to the provinces that lasted roughly two weeks each, enough to claim $1,000 in travel per diems. Van Nhil spent enough time on the road to claim $1,020.
One batch of documents showed that for one period of 68 days starting in early 2015, Van Moliden spent 51 travelling – worth $1,020 in per diems.
While the documents made available to the Post represent only a small portion of all of the centre’s paperwork, insiders insist that Sinuon’s practice of stacking mission trips with unqualified cronies is systematic and pervasive.
It is not uncommon, they said, for contractors to spend more than 20 days a month travelling, at least on paper. Repeated efforts to reach Sinuon for comment over the past week were unsuccessful.
While the mismanagement of donor funds is itself a serious concern, the practice is also putting a strain on the CNM’s work.
In spite of Math Imran’s contention that outside contractors were only hired when extra hands were needed, his and Sinuon’s insistence on putting family members on mission trips has actually excluded full-time staffers with the expertise to achieve the goals of such trips, overloading the lone technical staffers assigned to conduct the studies and inspections.
Technical experts often meet with local health care providers on trips to the provinces, one ministry source explained, and conduct inspections to ensure that professional standards and medicines are up to snuff. When only one expert can go on a trip, the source continued, they can’t take care of everything.
“The administrative staff don’t know how to do this,” the source said. “The quality [of rural care] will go down, and finally, patients will die.”
Perhaps anticipating misuse of travel funds, the Global Fund has begun requiring quarterly travel plans from the CNM, followed up with spot checks of individual trips. The insiders, however, say that since the quarterly plans lack a space for a traveller’s position, the contractors are still able to slip through.
Nonetheless, the Global Fund has launched a new investigation into financial misdeeds at the CNM, said spokesperson Seth Faison.
“The Global Fund has zero tolerance for corruption or fraud, and conducts robust audits and investigations,” Faison said in an email, while declining to comment on specific allegations due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.
He did add, however, that the Global Fund introduced a new fiscal agent in 2015, and noted that the “Fund reserves the right to suspend or revoke funding at any time, when conditions of a grant are violated”.
A representative for FHI 360 did not respond to an emailed request for comment as of press time. However, US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said in an email that USAID, which funds some of FHI’s work, had launched its own investigation.
“The Inspector General is now investigating the matter,” he said. “Since the investigation is ongoing we won’t have any additional comment.”
CNM director Huy Rekol said in response to an emailed request for comment that he was currently out of the country, and could not comment immediately.
Ly Sovann, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, likewise declined to comment on the matter without having seen any evidence, saying he had no knowledge of the matter, but would “discuss it with my colleagues”.
Though the ACU vowed an investigation into the 2013 CNM scandal, no one was ever prosecuted – although all missing donor funds were repaid, Faison confirmed. Repeated calls to the ACU to see if it would open a new investigation went unanswered this week.
Preap Kol, of anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Cambodia, said that based on a description, the situation at the CNM is “such a nepotistic arrangement . . . I’m not surprised that some of the potential corruption or irregularities may have occurred”.
“All of this amounts to some irregularities that need to be explained and need to be accounted for. We urge a proper and objective investigation . . . either by the Ministry of Health or the relevant authorities,” Kol added.
“It’s quite unsettling for many people to see such cases come to a close without any punishments or without anyone being held accountable. I think financial repayment is one way, but it is not the best way to set a good example when dealing with such irregularities.”