Did Malaysian AG Block ICAC Probe into Sabah Timber Corruption?
Although Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption traced millions of dollars in nominee accounts in a UBS Hong Kong branch to the chief minister of Sabah in 2007 and forwarded the information to authorities in Kuala Lumpur, the probe was allegedly blocked by Malaysia Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, according to a Sarawak NGO.
The Sarawak Report, in an investigation made public Sunday, alleged that the money was passed by Sabah lawyer Richard Christopher Barnes from Chief Minister Musa Aman into the Hong Kong account before it was forwarded in turn to a UBS Zurich account in the chief minister's own name, the report charged.
The entire Sarawak Report document can be found here. It details a long list of transactions between Musa, a UBS Bank official and two of Musa’s associates, with documentation allegedly obtained from officials to back up the story.
Asked to verify the mass of transactions and documents presented by the Sarawak Report, Cecily Chik, senior press information officer at the ICAC in Hong Kong, simply said "We would not comment on questions on operational matters."
However, according to the Sarawak Report, the money in the Hong Kong accounts was ordered frozen when ICAC investigators moved in, but when the three-year statute of limitations lapsed in Malaysia, the funds are believed to have been passed on to the Zurich account and to Musa.
“Those involved blame Malaysia’s refusal to sign a cooperation agreement on the investigation for the collapse of the case and the subsequent release of all the money back to Musa and his collaborators,” Sarawak Report alleged. “That refusal was the responsibility of Attorney General, Abdul Gani Patail, a close relative of Musa’s.”
According to the report by the NGO, the ICAC became involved after another associate of Musa’s, Chia Tien Foh, or Michael Chia, was arrested while attempting to smuggle SG$16 million in cash to Malaysia, sparking the money-laundering investigation, which discovered money flowing in and out of a wide variety of other accounts as well.
A May 25, 2007 letter obtained by the ICAC stated that the UBS account no. 231117 should “hold [the money] on trust for Aman,” the NGO said. Investigators noted that on May 31 2008 the account contained US$29.6 million. The NGO alleged that Musa was paid the money for illegal timber sales.
“A parallel investigation was undertaken by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). However we have learned that inter-country cooperation was blocked by Musa’s close family contact, the Attorney General, Abdul Gani,” the Sarawak Report alleged.
“The ICAC flow chart (below) illustrates how money was coming into Chia’s accounts from companies related to timber production in Sabah and flowing out to accounts being managed on behalf of Chief Minister, Musa Aman, including the one in the name of Richard Christopher.
The ICAC flow chart follows:
The final destination of the funds, according to the ICAC, was Musa's Zurich UBS account. The flow chart tracks money from Chia's accounts into Barnes' holding account and then on into Aman's UBS Zurich account in his own name.
The flow chart shows how money coming in from certain companies into accounts, managed by Michael Chia and his nominees in Hong Kong, was then passed on to a number of British Virgin Island companies including CTF International, Zenique Investment and Blisstop Corp. then back to the UBS Hong Kong account managed by Barnes.
The chart demonstrates that the accumulated money was then passed straight from Barnes into UBS Account No. 230-75069201 in Zurich in the name of Musa Aman.
Investigators noted that on 31st May 2008 the Barnes accounts contained US$29.6 million for account 231117, US$37 million for account 280777 and SG$9.5 million for account 280666. The Hong Kong Account 231117, which had been in existence since 2006, received a US$22.4 million injection of money from another Barnes account, between April 28th and May 31st.
Sarawak Report said the transactions were managed by a UBS client manager who had originally worked at the Singapore branch for HSBC Hong Kong, where he managed Chia’s account until 2006. However, after the client manager moved to UBS, HSBC “reviewed the Chia accounts and requested that they be closed down, owing to the irregularity of such huge sums being channeled through it,” the report noted.
It is unclear whether or not HSBC notified the authorities as they closed the account, the Sarawak Report said. However, the report said, they proceeded authorize the release of the contents of the account, which totaled S$13.4 million and US$7.19 million.
HSBC was reported to have provided a series of cashiers’ orders for millions of dollars made out to Chia, which he was then able to present for payment into his new account at UBS. The cash orders were accepted by UBS, the report notes.
According to the report, much of the money coming into the Chia accounts was linked to Sabah timber traders connected to listed companies in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, with Musa directly authorizing the concessions. Some of the transactions obtained by Sarawak Report name the reason for telegraphic transfers “Deposit For Concession.”
In return, loggers are said to have denuded two large areas of forest supposedly protected by a Heart of Borneo Treaty between the Sabah government and the World Wildlife Fund -- before Musa signed the Heart of Borneo Treaty.
The Chief Minister was accused in the report of “maximizing the squeeze” on Sabah’s remaining forest areas to get as much logging done as possible. Numerous examples of formerly protected areas appear to have been handed out in concessions. One such area was the Protected Forest Reserve in Kuamat Forest, designated to be left untouched until the state slipped through a change in its status in 2007, the report notes.
The Sarawak Report alleges there are numerous further examples of concessions in virgin forest and protected areas that were handed out to cronies. Most of the areas have been clear cut and very little of the wood has been declared through the official channels and therefore properly taxed, the report says.