Police Say Gang Swindled Rp 20 Billion From Top Brunei Official

Police aren't saying, and an inquiry by Asia Sentinel to the Brunei embassy in Jakarta was met by silence and a secretary who first put us on hold and then hung up. Police officials have only said the con artists bilked a "senior Brunei government official" into giving them nearly US$2 million to contribute to a "prominent Indonesian political party." It is illegal for foreigners to donate to political campaign in Indonesia.

According to the Jakarta Globe newspaper, national police Monday announced the arrest of a ring of 13 alleged swindlers who were said to have been impersonating government officials since 2006, making phone calls to their victims and asking them to deposit money into various bank accounts.

It seems difficult to believe a gang of crooks could actually get one of the world's richest men on the phone to cough up the money, making it more likely, perhaps, that someone from the palace in Bandar Sri Begawan, Brunei's capital, directed the money to the campaign, believed to be Yudhoyono's.

Especially because it wouldn't be the first time the Sultan channeled money into an illegal political pipeline. In 1987, US congressional investigators discovered that the Brunei monarch, at the request of the administration of President Ronald Reagan, had attempted to deliver US$10 million in illicit and secret aid to Nicaraguan rebels in the infamous Iran-Contra scandal. In a political scandal that could only be described as bizarre, senior Reagan administration officials on the National Security Council sought to sell weapons illegally to Iran, which was then under an arms embargo, in exchange for Iran's help in gaining the release of six US hostages held by Lebanese Hizbolah rebels. They also sought to use money gained from the sale of the weapons to the Nicaraguan rebels.

According to Congressional investigators, the Sultan agreed to put US$10 million into the scheme, only to have a bumbling Marine lieutenant colonel named Oliver L. North and his assistant, an attractive blonde named Fawn Hall, give the Bruneians the wrong bank account numbers by mistake. The Sultan's money ended up in the bank account of a Swiss businessman who ultimately gave it back to the Sultan with interest.

Brunei's Foreign Minister, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, told the New York Times in 1987 that the Sultan donated the money ''at the suggestion of the United States for humanitarian assistance.'' However, testimony in Washington indicated officials asked the sultan for the money because Congress had denied US government aid to the rebels fighting Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government, the Times reported.

In the current case, "Thank God we were able to apprehend them now," Insp. Gen. Hadiatmoko, deputy chief of the National Police's criminal investigation department, told a news conference. "We have arrested 13 suspects in different places since last week." Two others, the paper said, including the alleged mastermind, were still at large.

Hadiatmoko said the group compiled information about high-profile figures from Indonesia and elsewhere via the Internet, newspapers and the White and Yellow Pages.

"In their latest effort, for reasons related to the election, this group started to seek out other countries," he said. "They called at least 32 foreign officials, including an official from Brunei Darussalam who transferred Rp 20 billion to their account at Bank Mandiri last month."

Hadiatmoko said the group would open bank accounts under the names of public figures to convince victims they were legitimate. In one case, he said, they opened an account as Director General of Customs Anwar Supriyadi. "They made a fake [ID card] with Anwar's name to open the account," Hadiatmoko said. "With this account, the victim would believe that it was Anwar who called asking them to transfer money."