The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) investigation of the Buddha Dordenma project has found that Lam Tshering Wangdi and Anim Damcho could not account or explain the utilization of Nu 340.399 mn from the Buddha Dordenma Image Foundation (BDIF) fund.
The ACC said that this amount has been misappropriated.
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 and that they indeed used project funds in acquiring most of these personal properties. These properties included land, buildings, vehicles and business ventures.
The ACC so far has recovered Nu 163.197 mn of immovable assets like buildings and land and Nu 9.89 mn worth of moveable assets like vehicles.
The ACC has also found foreign bank accounts which it has informed the RMA to deal with.
The ACC is charging Lam Tshering Wangdi with 108 counts of embezzlement under the penla code and 27 counts of embezzlement under the ACB Act.
Anim Damcho Choden faces 89 counts of aiding and abetting, 23 counts of participation in an offence, 1 count of accomplice, 2 counts of money laundering and eight counts of embezzlement.
The ACC conducted its investigation based on the complaint that Anim Damcho Choden (had amassed huge wealth through misappropriation of Buddha Dordenma Image Foundation (BDIF) fund.
Another complaint lodged with the Commission also alleged her of running a tourism business and bringing in tourist guests in the name of the project levying the government approved tariff for whom the tariff waiver was actually granted by the government.
Though the investigation 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’s Act allows it to investigate any organization or Civil Society Organisation, whether registered or not, established to render any voluntary social services or other charitable purposes which receives funds and donations for the benefit of the people of Bhutan.
The Commission saw that it had both public interest cause as well as required legal basis to investigate the allegations.
The case was on financial improprieties surrounding the construction of 169 ft bronze statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and peripheral structures at Kuensel Phodrang, Thimphu which was, in part funded by foreign donations and individual contributions mobilized by Lam Tshering Wangdi, the Chairman of Menjong Chothuen Tshogpa.
The project was carried out under the banner of BDIF registered in Hong Kong but was not registered in Bhutan as is required under the Religious Organization Act of Bhutan 2007.
In the initial phase prior to democracy, the government or the then cabinet from 2004 onwards had steered the project and contributed in terms of providing 400-acre land, construction of 4.5 km approach road, and other site infrastructure and amenities to start the project. However, the government failed to retain joint control and supervision of the project after the advent of elected governments from 2008 onwards.
On record, Anim Damcho was designated as the Project Manager. The Commission’s investigation entailed detailed examination of all associated bank accounts including those in foreign jurisdictions and drawing connections with identified assets acquired by Anim Damcho and Lam Tshering Wangdi during the period.
The investigation had consolidated and organized its findings 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 this 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). This Zhug Thri work was directly contracted to Singye Construction Pvt Ltd and clearing works to Yeshey Clearing Agent.
Except for two remittances that were credited into his personal account, all other remittances totalling Nu. 114.054 mn had been received in the BDIF account maintained with the Bhutan National Bank Ltd (BNBL). Total accumulated fund in this account including interest earned and other cash deposits aggregated to Nu. 121.436 mn.
However, the total expenditure attributable to the project amounted to only Nu. 44.971 mn. Lam Tshering Wangdi failed to account for Nu. 73.417 mn.
Starting from 2009, unlike in the preceding period, Lam Tshering Wangdi started channelling 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 cash book maintained by him.
Lam Tshering Wangdi operated and managed 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, Lam had received foreign remittance equivalent of Nu. 366.471 mn into the BDIF account. The total accumulated fund in this account including opening balance, interest earned, other cash/cheque deposits aggregated to Nu. 381.626 mn. While the project related expenditure amounted to Nu. 304.578 mn excluding closing balance of Nu. 438.593 mn as at 30th June, 2018, Lam Tshering Wangdi could not account the difference of Nu. 76.609 mn
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. 480.526 mn into BDIF account.
Accounting the amount of interest generated, other cash/cheque deposits, the total fund accumulated in this account aggregated to Nu. 500.015 mn. From this total amount, Nu. 349.550 mn could be attributed to the project. Excluding the balance of Nu .438,593 Lam could not account the use of Nu. 150.026 mn.
In addition, he had received 91 remittances (89 after 2008 and two before 2008) from Malaysia and Singapore totalling Nu. 277.404 mn 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 Nu. 282.972 mn. Investigation revealed an expenditure of Nu. 92.599 mn attributable to the project while balance of Nu 190.372 mn could not be accounted for.
Combining the unexplained amount from BDIF and from personal account, Lam Tshering Wangdi could not account or explain the utilization of Nu.340.399 mn.
Evidence showed that majority of the remittances that came into his personal account were donations 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.
Evidence shows that Lam Tshering Wangdi was consciously aware of the Commission’s investigation powers and his obligation to be transparent, and accountable regarding the use of funds.
He also 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.
After considering all the facts and evidence gathered from the investigation, the Commission has come to the conclusion that this 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 said it believes that unabated corruption and malfeasance in charitable activities operating outside the regulatory or oversight framework under the banner of noble cause would 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.
The Commission is of the view that consideration should be given by the Office of the Attorney General in prosecuting Lam Tshering Wangdi and Anim Damcho 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.
An ACC official pointed out that while government agencies and private companies come under various regulatory frameworks the various CSOs springing up need to be better monitored for such large funds and related issues.
However, while the ACC gives the case to OAG for prosecution there is already a cloud over the case with a breakdown in trust between the ACC and OAG in the JPLP tax evasion case where it has accused the OAG of not handling the case as per due process.