HAA: Following five months of court proceedings, the Haa dzongkhag court yesterday acquitted foreign minister Rinzin Dorje in connection with the Lhakhang Karpo conservation project case.

The court dismissed both charges of omission, amounting to abuse of functions and embezzlement of public property that the Office of Attorney General (OAG) booked against the foreign minister, who was the then Haa dzongdag.

Lyonpo Rinzin Dorje was accused of favouring LD Sawmill by awarding timber sawing works worth Nu 1.403M (million) without consulting the tender committee and paying the sawmill Nu 37.70 per cubic foot (cft).  He was also charged for using the dzongkhag’s DCM truck to transport his private timber from Haa to Thimphu.

Lyonpo Rinzin Dorje was accused of intentionally instructing project manager Wangchuk Tshering, who was also acquitted yesterday, to award the contract to LD Sawmill operated by the former Katsho gup, Tshewang Penjor, at his quoted rate of Nu 37.70/cft.  Wangchuk Tshering then awarded the contract to Tshewang Penjor on July 18, 2012 backdating the work order to January 21 on his original quoted price.

OAG prosecutors alleged that the decision to re-tender sawing of timber was taken after the committee members informed the chairman that the rate quoted by LD Sawmill was 100 percent higher than the market rate.

Yesterday’s verdict, however, stated that only two committee members, the dzongkhag engineer Lhabchu and project engineer Tashi Gyeltshen had approached the chairman and not the others.

The verdict also stated that the court could not accept the charge that the defendant had taken a unilateral decision to award the sawing timber contract to Tshewang Penjor.  “It was not an unilateral decision but established that four members took the decision,” the verdict stated.

Lyonpo Rinzin Dorje was charged for knowingly not putting up the discussion to retender to the committee. “The process of awarding the contract by the defendant without consulting the tender committee intentionally had thus resulted in illegal award of contract,” the prosecutors had submitted earlier in the court.

The court also established that, although the chairman noted a remark on the paper proposing for the committee to re-tender, it was not done as it would have take more time and delayed the project. “Therefore, the court was convinced that the defendant had awarded the contract to Tshewang Penjor as per section 4.2.5 (g) and (h) of the procurement rules and regulations, 2009,” it stated.

The court also stated that before taking the decision, the defendant sought directions from the finance ministry on whether the project management could award the contract at the original quoted rate.

The verdict stated that the decision to award the contract at the original rate was not unilateral as alleged by the OAG but signed by eight committee members. “This was proven when committee members submitted before the court as evidence,” the verdict stated. “Moreover, the prosecutors failed to convince the court that the defendant committed an offence amounting to abuse of functions beyond reasonable doubt.”

Lyonpo Rinzin Dorje had been defending before the court, from his opening statement until the last evidence submission on April 20, that he took the decision to re-tender the sawing of timber.

He also admitted to having negotiated with the proprietor of sawmill to bring down the rate and then paid the sawmill the original quoted rate.

On April 21, the project manager submitted a document as evidence, where eight of the 11-committee members had signed on the comparative statement to set up a sawmill at the project site.  The prosecutor questioned the legality of the document, as the signed document didn’t have a date nor specified whether the committee had endorsed the work to be awarded at the original quoted rate.  The signed document was also overwritten.

On the second charge of embezzlement of public property, the verdict stated that the defendant had used the dzongkhag DCM truck to transport his timber from Haa to Pamtsho in Thimphu, as per the finance ministry’s circular of December 13, 2000, which allowed a civil servant to use pool vehicles under pressing and emergency personal needs. “Under pressing and emergency personal needs, a public servant who is using the pool vehicle is responsible to fuel the car and pay DSA for drivers. He is also responsible for the loss if the vehicle meets with an accident,” the verdict stated.

It stated that the prosecutor also failed to prove that the defendant had intentionally resorted to embezzle public property.

The Anti Corruption Commission’s (ACC) investigation found that the movement orders of the DCM truck were signed by lyonpo Rinzin Dorje himself and his subordinates on his instruction.

Lyonpo was asked to refund Nu 80,000 for the transportation of his private timber for 10 trips.

However, the court asked him to restitute Nu 4,166 to the government for being unable to produce receipt for fuelling the vehicle.  The verdict stated that the defendant had transported his timber for eight trips amounting to Nu 19,680. “However, he was able to produce only eight receipts for fuelling amounting to Nu 15,514,” the court verdict stated.

Meanwhile, both OAG and ACC officials said they couldn’t comment on the verdict, as they need to review it first.

“When technicalities are not comprehended, such outcomes are inevitable,” ACC’s chairperson Dasho Neten Zangmo said.

Both parties have 10 days to appeal.

The commission investigated the case from October 2012 to April 2014 after receiving an anonymous complaint against project officials of the Lhakhang Karpo project for possible collusions, supply of inferior construction materials, fraudulent payments and fabrication of fictitious muster roll.

By Rinzin Wangchuk