Financial records the Global Fund requested for its investigation into widespread corruption in health grants to Cambodia were withheld and censored by grant recipients, the probe found, suggesting a systematic attempt to cover up wrongdoing.
Out of a total of $220.3 million worth of expenses the fund’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) requested to review, documentation covering only $86.9 million was made available, the report notes.
When accounts and other records were provided for review, some were completely empty and “selected and critical elements” of the files were removed, indicating a concerted effort by some grantees to hide evidence of malfeasance.
Purchase orders, receipts, delivery documents, bidders’ quotes, requests for proposals, contract awards and invoices were missing from files provided by the Ministry of Health, National Malaria Center (CNM), National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control (NCHADS) and NGO umbrella group MEDiCAM, covering about $17 million in grants.
The National Bank of Cambodia, Acleda Bank Plc and the Foreign Trade Bank of Cambodia also withheld bank statements from the OIG for more than a year. When the statements were finally handed over in June 2012, the names of recipients of money had been redacted.
The report also highlights attempts by individuals associated with the Ministry of Health and the CNM to intimidate OIG staff and locally hired Cambodian contractors and consultants, which prompted the OIG to heighten security.
Witnesses who cooperated with the years-long investigation, the report continued, expressed concerns of “retaliation” if they were named.
Global Fund spokesman Seth Faison said in an email that the fund was still following up on the investigation, but declined to comment on the missing files and reports of intimidation.
“We take these issues very seriously and are following up on several aspects,” he wrote.
Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng, NCHADS director Mean Chhivun, MEDiCAM executive director Sin Somuny and officials at the CNM did not respond to requests for comment.
The fund on December 9 threatened to suspend or reduce more than $100 million of grants to Cambodia if the Ministry of Health, NCHADS and MEDiCAM fail to meet a 30-day deadline to return funds identified as “misused” by the probe.
Only three out of eight private companies contracted to provide services and equipment to the NCHADS that the Fund approached for its investigation agreed to be interviewed.
Medicom Co Ltd, Bright Diamond, Castle Angkor Pitch Co, Indace International and Pharmacy Sophanna declined to be interviewed by the OIG, according to the report. However, two of the firms told the Post yesterday they were either unaware of the request or claimed to no longer receive grants from the fund.
Jean-Yves Catry, managing director of Medicom, said he was not aware of any request for interview from the fund relating to its investigation.
“We never received anything, and I did not see anything about my company in the [newspaper] reports. We have won many contracts from the Global Fund before,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Pharmacy Sophanna claimed that the company no longer worked directly with Global Fund grants, having outsourced the contracts to a firm based in China.
“The last time we met with the Global Fund was in 2005. But now we have stopped [communications]. We don’t work with them anymore, because we have a contractor in China,” she said.
Representatives of Bright Diamond, Castle Angkor Pitch and Indace International could not be reached for comment.
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said the obstacles encountered by the OIG could be remedied by the introduction of a law on freedom of information, which ruling party lawmaker Chheang Vun said last month would be passed in the new year.
“I think the challenges that [the Global Fund] found are very common, especially with the absence of a freedom of information law. It’s especially difficult to obtain financial expenses,” he said. “That’s why civil society is advocating a law be passed as soon as possible.”
“We hope that in the near future we will have a law and that this will change perceptions.… [The law must meet] international standards and also include proper implementation.”