Red tape mix-up stalls tsunami aid theft case

PHUKET: Nine months after 2.05 million baht in tsunami aid money went missing from a strongbox at Phuket Provincial Hall, the investigation into the theft has apparently stalled temporarily due to poor communication between the police and the regional court now in charge of the case.

The Region 8 Prosecutor’s Office in Surat Thani says it approved a request by the Phuket City Police to resume collecting evidence in the case, but Pol Lt Col Sien Kaewthong told the Gazette he has not yet received written approval and cannot continue the investigation until he does.

The 2.05 million baht was first reported missing on February 15 by Metha Mekarat, at the time head of the Phuket Office of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (ODPM).

At first it appeared that the the funds, wrapped in paper bags and stored in a strongbox in a locked room under the supervision of the Phuket Provincial Financial Office (PPFO), had been stolen.

The initial police investigation found evidence that someone had sawed though one of the locked hasps on the strongbox and pried back its cover to remove 2.05 million of the 2.4 million baht it had contained.

Later, however, Vice-Governor Supachai Yuwaboon, head of an official civil service investigation into the disappearance, concluded that the money had been “lost” through “poor accounting” by the ODPM officers responsible for distributing it.

The case seemed to arrive at a turning point on April 22, when Phuket City Police arrested Apichart Nooprod, Chief of the Finance Division of the Phuket Provincial Financial Office (PPFO), on charges of conspiracy to steal state property.

K. Apichart was later released on his own recognizance, using his status in the civil service in lieu of a bail bond. He continues to work in his old position at the PPFO.

No details of the evidence against him were ever released to the press.

K. Apichart, from Nakhon Sri Thammarat, strongly maintained his innocence at the time of his arrest. He also alleged that he would not get a fair trial in the Phuket Provincial Court.

Apparently in agreement with this view, Special Public Prosecutor Bantoon Thongtan of the Phuket State Attorney’s Office at the end of July attached his opinion to the case file and forwarded it to Regional Director General of Prosecutions in Surat Thani, who is usually the one to decide whether such cases are sent to court or not.

K. Bantoon told the Gazette that Phuket City Police had filed a request to continue collecting evidence in the case, but that the decision to grant such approval now rests with the regional court.

Prasert Wattanasereekul, Special Public Prosecutor in the State Attorney Region 8 Office, told the Gazette that his office received the police request to investigate further more than a month ago and had granted its approval at the end of October.

“The Region 8 Prosecution Committee asked police to investigate further in order to find out whether it was Apichart Nooprod, or ODPM officials, who were responsible.

“The fact is that the ODPM officers put the money in paper bags before placing them in the PPFO strongbox, so we have no way of knowing how much money was actually in the strongbox,” he said.

For this reason, he said, it was too early to rule out poor “accounting practices” by ODPM officials.

“It could have been the result of dereliction of duty by ODPM officers for having failed to keep an accurate track of how much money the bags contained,” he said.

While the police are waiting for the official go-ahead from the State Attorney’s Office, the State Attorney’s office said it was waiting for the police to submit more evidence.

K. Prasert said that the Court was especially interested in learning the identities of six individuals whose fingerprints were found on the bags that had contained the funds.

Phuket News

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