Education Ministry 'cleaning up own nest' with 50 graft cases

Education Ministry 'cleaning up own nest' with 50 graft cases

Recent transfer of 3 executives suggests real results are in the offing

Possible malfeasance in construction of this aquarium and research centre in Songkhla, including alleged irregularities by three senior officials including Chaipreuk Sereerak, (inset), the secretary-general at the Education Council. (File photos)
Possible malfeasance in construction of this aquarium and research centre in Songkhla, including alleged irregularities by three senior officials including Chaipreuk Sereerak, (inset), the secretary-general at the Education Council. (File photos)

Heads are finally set to roll at the Ministry of Education as the cabinet has decided to transfer three senior officials amid a probe into alleged malfeasance in relation to the construction of an aquarium and marine research centre in southern Songkhla province.

The cabinet approved their transfer on Tuesday.

The investigation into any possible irregularities in the building of the Songkhla Lake Aquaculture Research Centre marks the latest step in a high-profile corruption probe the ministry has found itself mired in.

Its reputation has been stained by corruption scandals all year, notably in regard to a scholarship fund found to be infested with graft, as well as a worrying case involving a school lunch programme and its funding.

But this latest development is considered a departure from form as the ministry is aiming its nets at surprisingly big fish, top-level executives graded C10 and C11. It typically only arrests low-or mid-level members, if any at all.

The three officials are Chaipreuk Sereerak, secretary-general at the Education Council, Boonsong Champabhoti, deputy secretary-general at the Office of the Vocational Education Commission (Ovec), and Mongkolchai Somudorn, Ovec's adviser for Vocational Education Standard (Agriculture and Fishery).

The trio are being dispatched to work at the Office of the PM, where officials are assigned if they are being investigated. All now face a serious disciplinary investigation.

Their transfers came in response to a proposal by Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, the minister of education.

Dr Teerakiat has been conducting an investigation into this project since early this year.

"Our initial probe suggested the project may have been tainted with corruption involving high-ranking ministry staff," Dr Teerakiat said.

The initial inspection showed that executive officials ranging from C10 to C11 levels were involved in malfeasance regarding the 1.4-billion-baht scheme, he said.

The Aquaculture Research Centre, dubbed the Hoi Sang (conch) aquarium, has been plagued by problems for years.

Construction began in 2001 and was supposed to be finished by 2011. That seven-year delay sent the project cost spiraling from 800 million baht to 1.4 billion baht. Reports claim the project is still facing a funding shortfall with the construction not yet finished.

The aquarium was developed by Ovec.

The delay and rumours of corruption prompted a group of concerned parents of university students to send a letter to the education minister in January warning him of the risk of widespread graft. Dr Teerakit accepted the petition and vowed to carry out the initial probe immediately.

The investigation highlights the scope of the nation's new anti-graft guidelines, prescribed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), pundits say.

Under the new guidelines, upon receiving or hearing corruption complaints, the chief of the relevant agency must launch a probe within seven days. It has to wrap up within 30 days.

Moreover, if preliminary information shows evidence of corruption, an agency chief must transfer those who have been accused.

The guidelines require that accused officials be transferred to another agency at least on a temporary basis if the charges are serious.

They state that the chief of a government agency must also take immediate disciplinary action against accused officials if an investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing.

Dr Teerakiat said the transfer and probe of the three high-ranking officials show how the ministry is taking its corruption problem seriously and it making headway in rooting out graft.

The ministry has so far unearthed 50 cases of graft and said it is investigating those suspected of involvement.

Some are major cases, such as the procurement of CCTV cameras for schools in the three southernmost provinces as well as Songkhla; the construction of multi-purpose field roofs for 11 schools in the South; and irregularities in the procurement of education supplies at a school in the Northeast.

Similar to the aquarium case, the ministry is now investigating officials involved in the CCTV scandal. An initial probe found 70 officials at 12 Educational Service Area Offices in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla might be involved in the case related to the bid for 5,000 CCTVs at a cost of 405 million baht.

The accusers said the bid was rigged to favour companies that quoted above-market prices, according to Gen Kosol Prathumchart, an adviser to the education minister. Gen Kosol was involved in the probe.

The surveillance cameras have already been installed to provide security at 1,092 schools in the four restive provinces.

Meanwhile, the ministry has approved a budget of 62 million baht to build dome-shaped roofs for schools in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat in an attempt to promote sport among students.

An initial probe found that the bid winners were computer companies, not construction firms, however, and their bids were unusually high, according to Gen Kosol.

Gen Kosol said the ministry investigators also recently visited Educational Service Area Offices in the Northeast to gather more information about the procurement of education supplies worth 279 million baht for 600 schools.

Initial results suggest local officials tried to provide objects that schools did not need, such as tractors and bookshelves with little if any relationship to the occupational training the schools offer.

"The most common form of graft we have found is what we call 'top-down corruption' regarding the decisions made by high-ranking officials. It seems they created unnecessary projects and requested a budget to buy equipment the schools didn't need," he said.

He said school directors and teachers are often "too scared to blow the whistle" on their superiors.

When irregularities are detected, the ministry conducts a "bottom-up investigation", he said.

Auditors visit schools and officials to catch small fish first, he said, adding this line of inquiry leads back to the masterminds at the ministry in Bangkok.

The ministry is "cleaning up its own nest", he said.

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