Watch ruling a bad mistake
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) ruling on Thursday that cleared Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon of wrongdoing in the luxury wristwatch scandal is unconvincing and dubious due to its weak rationale behind the decision and its half-baked probe into the case.
However, given its half-hearted commitment to pursue the case in the first place, the public has reason to suspect that the intention was to let the deputy prime minister and defence minister off the hook easily.
While the probe into the assets concealment and unusual wealth allegations against Gen Prawit is still seen as unfinished business, the NACC's controversial decision is also contradictory to a previous ruling on a similar case.
The scandal broke last December when Gen Prawit was caught wearing diamonds and an expensive watch in a photo. It prompted eager online eyes to dig up old photos which showed at least 22 pricey timepieces worth about 40 million baht in total on the wrist of the retired general. None were among the assets he had declared to the NACC.
But the NACC's probe into the allegations was unnecessarily delayed, even though this should have been an easy job of verifying the serial numbers and owners of each of the luxury wristwatches.
Gen Prawit, who claimed he borrowed all the watches from his now deceased friend, Patthawat Suksriwong, was not very cooperative. He requested several extensions to the deadlines given by the agency to explain his connection to the watches.
Given the NACC's close ties with the ruling regime, this episode demonstrates what looks like a concerted effort to not have the probe conducted in a straightforward, timely and transparent manner.
Even thought the NACC has spent a year obtaining information on the watches' serial numbers from both local dealers and overseas manufacturers, as well as the Customs Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it still failed to get critical details on the ownership of the timepieces.
Among the 22 watches seen in the media pictures, the NACC found purchase documents for three watches at Patthawat's residence. The NACC did not bother to find out why ownership documents for the rest were missing.
Additionally, it claimed it only received information on 10 of the 22 watches from the overseas manufacturers, which is useless because it provides no details on purchasers or owners.
The minority in the ruling, three of the eight votes, suggested that the probe could further proceed through international and governmental cooperation. Unfortunately, the majority of the commissioners ruled to drop the case saying international cooperation could not be sought because asset investigation is not deemed a criminal case. The claim is wrong. Unusual wealth or asset concealment could constitute corruption which is criminal in nature.
Following its unfinished probe, the NACC in its ruling applied a standard different from the one it previously applied to a similar case.
In 2011, when it probed former transport permanent secretary Supoj Saplom's possession of an undeclared asset, a 2.9-million-baht car, which he claimed belonged to a friend, the NACC ruled against him, saying such high-value lending was not possible. It also ruled that Supoj was guilty because he was the one who actually used the car, even though the registration papers stated that his friend was the owner, according to Isra news agency. On the contrary, in the watch scandal the agency ruled that the lending of such high value assets is believable and possible.
The NACC could have done much better. It should have made public both the information it received from the manufacturers and its letters sent to them. It should have investigated the matter with speed, not delay. And it should not have ended the case when further work could still be pursued.
For the anti-graft agency of a country where the rich and the powerful usually get away with wrongdoings and graft, its ruling in the watch probe was a grave mistake.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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