PHNOM PENH — The head of Cambodia’s tax department, Kong Vibol, could face jail for lying to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) if sanctioned, the corporate regulator has told VOA.
A number of questions were raised about the shadowy business dealings of Kong and other powerful, politically connected Cambodians in an investigation aired by Al Jazeera’s program 101 East last week.
Kong, who as director-general of the General Department of Taxation clearly lives in Cambodia, falsely claimed to reside at a house in Melbourne in ASIC records seen by VOA. ASIC Communication Manager Angela Friend told VOA in an emailed response that it was an offense to provide false information to the Australian corporate watchdog under the Corporations Act.
“A breach of this provision is punishable with 100 penalty units or imprisonment for 2 years, or both. The current value of a penalty unit is $210,” she wrote in the response.
She confirmed that under the same law the director of such a company must ordinarily reside in Australia but said ASIC “does not generally comment on whether it is investigating a particular matter”.
VOA has tried to contact Kong for days but has not been able to reach him. Kong falsely claimed in records for his company Panhariddh Pty. Ltd. to live in Noble Park, a suburb in Melbourne. Dy Vichea, the deputy National Police chief and son-in-law of Prime Minister Hun Sen who Al Jazeera also alleged had lied about his residential address to ASIC, also could not be reached.
When grilled by Al Jazeera in an on camera interview about why he appeared to have lied to ASIC, Kong first claimed the business predated his working life in Cambodia.
After he was flatly told that was not true Kong then said he had transferred ownership of the company before finally declaring the firm had closed down “a long time ago”.
“I got nothing to do in Australia,” he said.
Kong was also grilled about a major petroleum company owned by his family that Cambodian government records showed failed to register for tax until 2017.
Repeatedly he asked how such records had been obtained and claimed both the ASIC register and the official Cambodian company registry were wrong, including the listed address for Bright Victory Mekong Petroleum Import Export Co., Ltd., which is Kong’s own house.
“We sold a long time ago. I think maybe they use my address before but they never been and I don’t know when they sold,” he told Al Jazeera.
Kong, the program said, owned millions of dollars worth of property in Australia as well and multiple businesses, despite earning a salary of less than $1,000 a month. He also set up investment companies and trusts with an Australian couple who were soon after convicted of defrauding the Australian Tax Office of more than $1.8 million, the program said.
An affidavit believed to have been signed at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh revealed that at one point he transfered $1.2 million to one of the same couple’s trusts. The program also featured a former Cambodian government advisor, Kalyan Ky, who said she had warned the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh and the government that senior Cambodian officials were laundering proceeds of criminal activity through Australia.
A spokesperson for Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who declined to be named said in an emailed response that the department referred any information about potential criminal conduct under Australian laws to relevant law enforcement bodies.
“We strongly refute any claims that the Australian Government enables or condones illicit activities, or does not take allegations of corruption and other criminal conduct seriously,” the spokesperson said.
A man answering the phone of Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yentieng said the number was incorrect.
The office of Kelly O’Dwyer, Australia’s Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, and the Australian Federal Police did not respond to VOA inquiries. Preap Kol, Executive Director of Transparency International Cambodia, told VOA in an email that no one in Cambodia would dare question any wrongdoing by such high level officials
“Integrity among many public officials here in Cambodia are questionable. So they get used to being perceived that way. People here are powerless, so they would not even dare to ask such a question,” he said.
Kong’s claim that the Cambodia’s business registry was wrong was “hard to believe” he said, stressing though that he did not know the reality behind that situation.
“Cambodia does not have strict laws or regulations on conflict of interest like in many other countries. So it this is quite a normal practice here,” he said, adding it was inconceivable such practices would change under the current administration.
Hong Lim, a Cambodian/Australian MP in the parliament of the Australian State of Victoria, said some individuals exposed in the Al Jazeera report had spread fear of repercussions in Melbourne communities.
“These are the types of characters we are dealing with now in Melbourne,” he said.