Ex-principals to appeal bribery convictions

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Some former New Taipei school principals found guilty of taking bribes from lunch suppliers have maintained their innocence, vowing to appeal to the high court.

One of the convicted ex-principals, Yeh Chen-yi, said he was very "disappointed" by the guilty verdict and alleged that the court believed only what the lunch suppliers claimed, ignoring the fact there was no other supporting evidence, such as entries in their account books.

Yeh, who like all other defendants has been suspended from office, said he will fight to the end to clear his name. It remains uncertain how many of the principals will appeal to the high court against their verdicts.

The Taipei District Court on Friday convicted 32 of 36 defendants in a corruption case that had shocked Taiwan's education sector. The 32 former elementary school principals were given punishments ranging from suspended jail terms to lengthy imprisonment of up to 10 and half years.

A retired school principal, Chen Mu-cheng, who has been running a website in support of the defendants, questioned whether bribes were really involved in the case.

Chen noted that prosecutors and investigators conducted waves of extensive raids on schools between October 2011 and February 2012, and indicted the principals and other officials of 40 schools.

He asked whether it was possible that there had been so many corrupt principals or if they had in fact only accepted donations from the lunch suppliers to enhance their schools' management.

While some of the defendants owned up their "crimes" and returned their "bribes" during the investigation, others have consistently claimed that they never accepted any money from the lunch suppliers, whose donations had all been spent on sponsoring school activities or helping students from low-income families.

Some of the principals have claimed that they had to look for outside sources of funding for school affairs because of insufficient support from the cash-strapped government.

Hsueh Chun-kuang, head of the nation's association of school principals, voiced support for the defendants.

The court must look at where the money has gone and decide whether there were "criminal" intentions when the money was taken, Hsueh said.

He also questioned the fairness of the sentencing, saying the court came down hard on those who denied the charges.

Those who confessed to the charges and returned the money were mostly given suspended sentences.

The convicted defendants will remain suspended from office, meaning they will continue to be denied any pay from the government.

Yeh, who headed New Taipei's Shulin Elementary School before the indictment, said that life had been difficult since the suspension and he has been unable to find any regular work.

But New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu said the four defendants who have been acquitted will be reinstated immediately.

Chu stressed that since the outbreak of the bribery scandal, the contracting of school lunch suppliers has been closely monitored, and parents are happy with the meals provided for their children at school.

A spokesperson for the Taipei District Court said the convicted defendants, as principals, should have served as role models for the teachers and students.

But instead they undermined the foundation of the nation's education sector by taking bribes, the spokesperson Fan Chi-kang said, citing the verdict.