… suspected of commercial bribery and tax evasion

Rinzin Wangchuk

The proprietor of Nobgang Tshongkhang, who also owns the Sale Zone has appealed to the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) on August 15 to allow them to sell their stock of goods to remain in business even as  the anti-graft commission is investigating a bribery case.

The proprietor claimed that with a  freeze notice on his business,  he could default on his loan repayments if he is not allowed to sell the goods in stock at his two shops.

The ACC closed both Nobgang Tshongkhang and the Sale Zone, a subsidiary business, on July 25 after finding a prima facie case of corruption in connection with alleged commercial bribery and tax evasion in 2021.

In the suspension order, the commission stated that individuals or business entities are prohibited from conducting or entering into any business directly or indirectly using the licenses hereinafter suspended till pending the outcome of the case. “Non-compliance to the ACC’s lawful demand constitutes an offence under the Anti-Corruption Act of Bhutan (ACAB) 2011,” the suspension order stated.

ACC officials declined to comment  why the business was suspended. However,  Kuensel learnt that the ACC took up the case after unearthing a racket of collusion among customs officials, importers and loaders  while importing goods through the Mini Dry Port (MDP) and other designated areas in Phuentsholing.

ACC’s investigation revealed that a senior customs inspector stationed at the MDP and truck parking (temporary) port in Phuentsholing had been receiving illicit payments from multiple parties in relation to import of goods. He allegedly concealed these bribes using bank accounts of other private individuals. ACC detained him on October 8 last year.

Kuensel also learnt that the proprietor of Nobgang Tshongkhang and Sale had allegedly transferred Nu 37,500 to one of the customs officials’ bank accounts. The proprietor could have transferred the amount to the inspector’s bank account to pay for the loaders working at MDP and truck drivers who transported his imported goods.

He claimed innocence. “It was during Covid-19 pandemic that the transportation of goods from Phuentsholing to Thimphu were restricted,” he said. There was no option but to rely on people working at MDP to clear and transport goods from there.”

He also said that he didn’t suspect customs officials would deceive him since importers had to pay loaders and truckers for the consignment.


The modus operandi

Sometime in June 2021, ACC began investigation on the unrelenting surge in Covid-19 cases in Phuentsholing despite being under a strict lockdown.

It was found that senior customs inspectors allegedly used different individual bank accounts to receive bribes from the importers. For instance, an inspector requested one of his old schoolmates working at Pasakha, to use his bank account. He convinced his friend saying that he had money to receive from someone in relation to import of betel nut and that he was not comfortable using his own savings account, as it would make law enforcement agencies suspicious.

The suspect shared his bank account number with importers or suppliers in Jaigaon, India, to transfer the bribe amount. In less than a month, he collected about Nu 800,000 from four individuals. Every time a deposit was made, the suspect requested his friend to withdraw cash and deliver it to the containment area.

On other occasions, he instructed the friend to transfer money to other accounts that he claimed to be his family members.

He then switched to another old schoolmate operating a small shop at Pekarshing in Phuentsholing. Using this account, the suspect collected about Nu 1.99 million from about 35 individuals or business entities. The suspect invested the amount received in bribes to operate a beer supply business, and at one time, to sell betel nut. He also engaged in a more deceitful means of hiding corrupt proceeds by routing through additional layers of account.