Ex-abbot reveals temple scam plot
Mysterious NOB official asked for kickback from construction funds
- 19 Jun 2017 at 04:30
- WRITER: WASSAYOS NGAMKHAM & AEKARACH SATTABURUTH
A woman prays at a merit-making event at a temple in Bangkok. A dozen 12 temples in six provinces are under investigation for embezzlement of up to 60 million baht of temple maintenance funds. The scandal involves former and active officials of the National Office of Buddhism. (Photo by Seksan Rojjanametakun)
A former abbot of a temple in Lampang that was accused of being involved in the temple finance scam has revealed details about how the fraud is carried out.
The 48-year-old, whose name has been withheld, left the monkhood more than a year ago and now resides in the province. "I have all the evidence for officers," he said while popping anti-depression pills to ease his stress. He added he was also scared of the evidence.
"I was ordained at the temple for 10 years and gradually renovated the temple building with donations from followers. Once 70% of the construction was done, a person from the central Buddhism office contacted us to ask if we wanted more to complete our work," the former monk said.
"I wanted to finish the project so I said yes. The central office sent me a form to fill for the project. After four months, a woman contacted me and offered a specific amount. The money was later transferred to me over three instances, around 100,000 each time," he said. He said he had seen the woman making merit at the temple before.
The former abbot said the agent did not ask for a payback at first. But when the person wired the third sum, she gave the monk her bank account details and asked for kickbacks, he said.
"I did not know what to do. Part of me feared many things. I never visited the central office, I only made phone calls. I was afraid if I visited the office and they found out there were records of money transfers, I would be in trouble. And I was afraid our temple would not be able to move up the ecclesiastical rank in the future. There were a lot of thoughts rushing through my mind. Eventually I decided to transfer the money back and used the money that I had previously received to complete the construction of the temple," he said.
"Other temples are also asked to pay this so-called 'change' money from public funds, because none of them knew officers from the central office," he said. According to a preliminary investigation by the police, five temples in Lampang were among 12 temples nationwide suspected of involvement in the temple finance scam.
Police were investigating the scam after primary findings showed suspects involved in the scam had connections to high-ranking officials at the National Office of Buddhism (NOB). The police found 60.5 million baht was siphoned out of 12 temples' maintenance fund in the shape of so-called "change" money.
Commissioner of Central Investigation Bureau Thitirach Nhongharnpitak has ordered the police Counter-Corruption Division to probe the 12 cases related to "change" money, leading to raids at 10 suspects' homes Samut Prakan, Nonthaburi and Bangkok on June 8.
On June 16, Counter Crime Division (CCD) commander Pol Maj Gen Kamol Rienracha summarised seven out of 12 cases before the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The five other cases will be submitted to the NACC today.
The investigation found the pattern of fraud in all the cases was similar to what the former abbot revealed. The government allocates a budget to the NOB for temple renovations and new projects at temples periodically, and the use of the funds has lately been riddled with corruption.
The suspects, some of whom were high-ranking officers of the NOB, would contact temple abbots to propose funding for projects. Corrupt officials would then demand kickbacks. The temple abbot would be expected to give them some "change" in exchange for a project at the temple.
The probe found the gang consisted of four NOB officials, five outsiders who were agents used to contact abbots, and one monk.
The police filed charges against five suspects and have summoned the other five for questioning. The main suspect was in a senior position at the NOB and is believed to have fled after transferring all the money outside Thailand, said police.
The gang was divided into four groups to target temples in four regions.
The police began investigating the temple scams in August 2015 after the Office of the Auditor General reported to the CCD that they found irregularities in the temple maintenance budget at Huay Kwang Jing temple in Phetchburi province.
OAG then traced money trails between the NOB and 33 temples from 2012 to 2016.
Paiboon Nititawan, a National Reform Council member, said he believed there were more than 12 temples involved in the scam. Temples' financial support is classified into maintenace, education and teaching dissemination. "I have also learned some temples fake the number of religious students to increase the budget allocated to them. Some temples only had 150 students but they reported they have 200," he told the Bangkok Post.
He said he would ask the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission to probe whether the abbots of the 12 temples were involved in the scam.
Phra Ratcha Wijit Patiparn, abbot of Wat Ratburana in Chumphon, one of the 12 named by police, says he welcomes an investigation into the temple's finances. He said all the money the temple received from the NOB to build a chapel and extend a meeting hall had been passed to the building contractor.
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