Damaged parties in the DNP bribe-taking scandal are disclosed for the first time during the press conference today. Photo courtesy of DNP

45 parks officials file complaints as “damaged parties” in the DNP bribe-taking scandal

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) has begun the position re-transferring for its officials claiming to have landed into trouble as a result of the alleged bribe-taking by the recently dismissed chief

The department’s acting Director-General Athapol Charoenshunsa, who chairs the scrutiny panel looking into the matter, has revealed during the press conference today that up to 45 parks officials so far have submitted their complaints or petitions to the department, claiming they are “in trouble” as a result of the alleged bribe-taking by the recently dismissed chief, Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya.

According to the scrutiny panel, up to 20 of them are national parks chiefs, 14 are field leaders, nine are division directors, and two are branch directors of regional offices. Mr. Athapol noted that this number is relatively small compared to the speculation that the number could be over 200 to 300.

“Based on the petitions we have received, the damaged parties are not as many as we first thought. I feel a bit relieved about it,” said Mr. Athapol

The panel’s work is currently based on the petitions that come in from the damaged parties. Mr. Athapol said the panel, which started its work a few weeks ago shortly after he assumed the position, meets every week to consider the petitions and correct the problems. It’s widely understood that these officials were unfairly transferred from their offices as they refused to pay bribes to Mr. Rutchada and therefore should be transferred back to their previous offices or where are suitable for their capacities. Their actual problems in the petitions, however, were not disclosed today.

Mr. Athapol insisted that the panel is also looking into “all the orders” made during Mr. Rutchda’s term to see the whole picture of the damage, but declined to share the number of the damaged parties and how they have been affected as a result of Mr. Rutchada’s acts.

The public as such has not been able to learn about the whole damage done at the department, except for those having stepped out to file the petitions.

“We have opted for weekly based reviews of cases and make our decisions upon our reviews to ensure that the new rounds of our transfers will be fair. If we do the whole lot at once, it will take time, and it can end up messy,” said Mr. Athapol, adding the number of heads of the department’s projects in the field alone is already over a thousand.

The panel has also been considering the normal transfers of its officials at the same time. As of today, 12 position transfers have been made; six are normal transfers, two are those with names on the envelopes found in Mr. Rutchada’s office, and only four are those in the petitions. There is another re-transfer which was involved with the unfair treatment made by the panel over the past two weeks.

Mr. Rutchada’s first and only public appearance at NACC on Jan 23 since the arrest. (Pool photo)

Mr. Rutchada’s orders

Mr. Rutchada took the DNP office early last year before investigators from the Anti-Corruption Division (ACD) and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) raided his office on Dec 27. According to the NACC, the agency had received a complaint complaining that a senior executive of the department has exercised power to demand bribes from his subordinates in exchange for position retaining. 

Following their investigation, the investigators learned that the DNP chief had demanded bribes from his subordinates, who are heads of local park offices in exchange for position retaining. Those who refused to pay bribes were either removed from their offices or transferred to remote offices. As a result, some succumbed to his calls and had to pay bribes worth around Bt 200,000 to 300,000. In addition, he has also demanded them pay bribes monthly, according to the NACC.

The investigators then hatched a sting on Dec 27, under which they caught him off guard with an envelope packed with the called money worth Bt 98,000 on his desk. The investigators also searched his office and found nearly five million baht packed in several envelopes. They charged him with malfeasance in office and demanding or receiving bribes following Section 149 of the Criminal Code. He was also charged with Section 157 of the Code.

Mr. Rutchada was then released on bail and transferred to the PM’s Office following an order signed by PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha the day after, before the Environment Ministry’s permanent secretary Jatuporn Buruspat, signed an order last week to dismiss him from the office pending the final say from the ministry-appointed disciplinary probe panel. Mr. Jatuporn cited the damage done to the reputation of the department and the ministry.

Based on the testimonies given to the anti-corruption investigators by some witnesses, Mr. Rutchada had signed an unusual order, Tor Sor 0901.304/ Wor 3952, just one day after he took the office on Feb 23, instructing parks officials at a young manager or executive level equivalent to C-8 rank and below to go back to their original offices. Four days later, he then allegedly started to issue separate orders, said to be in every three days on average, to transfer parks officials, who generally headed local offices or branches as well as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries nationwide after the first order.

Many of them are said to have already settled at their current offices, having secured positions and families and do not want to be transferred elsewhere. In order to retain their current positions, they had to pay money with rates up to Bt 200,000-300,000 or even Bt 500,000, or be transferred to remote offices.

In the past, park officials were generally alleged of paying money in return for better positions in certain areas, particularly in tourist attraction areas such as marine national parks. It’s not known how many such an order was also made during Mr. Rutchada’s term, and how many transfer orders in total he has made during his term.

The department has at least 16 regional offices with some branches, around 155 national parks including those under designation preparations, plus over 150 wildlife sanctuaries under its responsibility.

Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, which has been following up on the issue, has expressed concern over the department’s re-transferring processes. In its third statement, the foundation pointed out that the re-transferring lacks clear and thorough processes to fix the problems. What is of concern at the same time is the transfers of officials who lack knowledge and ability to manage particularly sensitive areas, thus affecting their ecological values.

Sasin Chalermlarp, the foundation’s chairman, posted on his Facebook, remarking that if the department drags its feet, those in Mr. Rutchada’s network could further exploit the situation in their responsible areas by making money out of them, thus the damage done to the areas and the resources there. He suggested the department expedite the re-transferring and remove Mr. Rutchada’s connections, the calls that have not been met.