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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Health Ministry acknowledges ‘complications’ in nod to CNM graft

A village malaria worker takes a sample of blood from a patient for a test at his home in Pailin province in 2012. AFP
A village malaria worker takes a sample of blood from a patient for a test at his home in Pailin province in 2012. AFP

Health Ministry acknowledges ‘complications’ in nod to CNM graft

The Ministry of Health this week called for closer oversight of contract employees and acknowledged “inappropriate phenomena” in paperwork filed by mid-level officials, an admission that comes just over a month after evidence came to light of widespread graft at the Kingdom’s National Malaria Centre (CNM).

A Post investigation in May into travel documents from the CNM revealed that unit heads there had used their positions to dole out contractor jobs to numerous family members, who then filed at-times fraudulent expense reports to claim per diems from grants funded by international donors.

The findings were corroborated by extensive interviews with ministry insiders.

Though the new ministry announcement, dated June 21, makes no mention of the CNM, the irregularities it describes bear a remarkable similarity to those taking place at the centre.

The letter, signed by Health Minister Mam Bunheng, is addressed to heads of mid-level units, and notes that “the Ministry of Health has observed that there are some inappropriate phenomena and complications in the management of contract staffers at the stage of filing forms to serve as contract staff with health expertise”.

It goes on to admonish officials to “check the list of names of contract staffers clearly, and not allow changes” and to “absolutely” not “allow anyone to commit corruption”.

At the CNM, unit heads were accused of hiring family members with no medical expertise whatsoever as “drivers”, and then facilitating their travel to the provinces, sometimes to the exclusion of technical experts, in order to cash in on the per diems.

Travel documents from the centre showed, among other things, multiple trips 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.

The ministry letter reminds unit heads that they “must be responsible for phenomena that happen in their units”, but lays out no punishments for malfeasance.

Health Minister Bunheng could not be reached for clarification yesterday, nor could ministry spokespeople Ly Sovann and Or Vanndin.

Huy Rekol, head of the CNM, whose signature appears on many of the questionable travel forms, said he had not yet seen the letter and didn’t know if it was directed at his organisation before declining to comment further.

In the wake of the revelations last month, USAID and the Global Fund – which pay for the per diems at the centre of the controversy – said they were conducting investigations into the irregularities.

After a 2013 scandal in which it was found CNM officials had pocketed more than $410,000 in illegal payoffs, the Global Fund demanded receipts for trips. That request was rejected by the centre and ultimately abandoned by the fund after a lengthy impasse.

A US Embassy spokesperson declined to comment on the ministry’s letter yesterday, saying the investigation was still ongoing.

Global Fund spokesperson Seth Faison said in an email that their investigation was also ongoing, but noted the “new directive is a step forward, and every step counts”.

However, Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, was sceptical that the missive would curb corruption.

“This letter from the Minister of Health confirms that there are irregularities at various levels under the Ministry including especially the CNM case, which was well known to the public,” he said in an email.

“While such a letter serves to remind officials to avoid misconducts or corrupt practices, it won’t have [the] desire[d] effect until concrete mechanisms are established for prevention, monitoring and punishment of officials who commit misconduct or corruption.”

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