The head of Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation was arrested at his office in Bangkok by police on charges of bribery and malfeasance in office.
On Tuesday morning, a team of police led by Counter Corruption Division (CCD) commander Pol Maj Gen Jaroonkiat Pankaew arrived at the department’s Sueb Nakhasathien Building in Lat Yao area and took director-general Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayudhya away to hear the charges against him at their headquarters.
At the time, Mr Rutchada was in a meeting with senior officials. Police entered the meeting room around 9.30 a.m., as heads and senior officials from the department’s agencies arrived with gift baskets to wish the department chief a Happy New Year.
Mr. Rutchada had previously directed that no gift baskets or presents be given to him, only New Year’s greetings.
The police stormed into the meeting room and caught the department chief off guard, as did the other executives, officials, and well-wishers present. He was taken away by police to face charges of demanding or agreeing to accept bribes or other benefits for personal gain, abuse of authority, and malfeasance in office.
Before transporting Mr Rutchada to the CCD office for legal proceedings, the arresting officers searched his office. During the search, they discovered approximately 5 million baht in cash and impounded it as evidence for further investigation.
In February, Mr Rutchada was appointed Director-General of the Department.
He was caught accepting a bribe, according to Pol Maj Gen Jaroonkiat.
“The evidence was quite clear because officials arrested him while the money was being exchanged,” the CCD chief said, according to AFP.
During an afternoon media briefing on the case, Niwatchai Kasemmongkol, secretary-general of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), provided additional details.
He stated that the national anti-graft agency and CCD police investigators found merit in allegations that Mr Rutchada demanded monthly bribes from officials seeking to retain their positions and those seeking to advance in their careers.
Those who refuse to give the department chief money will be unfairly transferred, according to Mr Niwatchai.
The NACC and CCD investigators then devised a sting, with one of the victims instructed to deliver an envelope containing 98,000 baht to Mr Rutchada’s office at 9.10 a.m. on Tuesday.
During an afternoon media briefing on the case, the NACC secretary-general stated that the arresting team had evidence – the envelope containing the bribe money and an audio recording conversations demanding the bribe – to arrest the accused department chief.
Another 4.9 million baht in cash was discovered in a safe during the search of Mr. Ratchada’s office.
Mr. Niwitchai stated that he believed many government officials were forced to pay their boss money. He also stated that the investigation was being expanded.
He claimed that the NACC was obligated to investigate allegations of corruption by state officials. He stated that because a complaint had been filed with police, the officers would submit their investigation report to the NACC within 30 days.
During questioning, Mr. Rutchada denied the charges, according to Pol Maj Gen Jaroonkiat. He admitted to accepting the envelope but claimed he had yet to open it and was unaware it contained cash. The CCD commander stated that the department chief had yet to explain the origins of the money discovered in the safe.
He was confident that police had enough evidence to charge the department chief. The secretary-general of the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), Phumwisan Kasemsuk, has urged all government officials not to accept such behavior from their superiors.
Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, former head of Phetchaburi’s Kaeng Krachan National Park, had earlier filed a complaint with CCD police against Mr Rutchada, accusing him of abusing his authority by transferring officials who refused to pay him 500,000 baht to positions far from their home provinces.
Mr Chaiwat also accused the department chief of demanding money from the heads of the department’s agencies. Mr Chaiwat claimed that the amount of money was determined by the size of the budgets received by each agency.
Mr Rutchada, according to Mr Chaiwat, would collect 18.5% of the budgets allocated to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and 30% of the budgets received by forest fire prevention units.
After receiving the complaint, police launched an investigation and later decided to charge the department chief.
Mr Rutchada’s arrest shocked Jatuporn Buruspat, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Mr Jatuporn said a civil service fact-finding committee had been formed to investigate the bribery allegations and would report back in seven days.