Luxury home searched in $8.1m Buddhism Office embezzlement probe

PHOTO: The Nation/Asia News Network

As part of an ongoing investigation into the alleged embezzlement of more than Bt200 million (S$8.17million) from state subsidies for temples in recent years, Thai authorities on Wednesday morning searched a house in Bangkok's Taling Chan district linked to the wife of former National Buddhism Office (NBO) director Nopparat Benjawatananan.

Nopparat, who served as NBO chief from 2010-2014, was accused of siphoning off money from the subsidies and has fled Thailand.

Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) deputy chief Pol Major-General Romsit Weeriyasan led AMLO officials along with Royal Thai Police Counter Corruption Division officers used a warrant to search the luxury house of Pattaranan Benjawatananan, who was registered as marrying Nopparat in 2013.

An initial probe found that the house was registered in Pattaranan's daughter's name after it was bought with Bt49 million in cash in 2013, when the daughter was only 20 years old.

A security guard testified that some people had moved boxes reportedly containing documents out of the house on October 8. This search was part of the investigation into alleged embezzlement between 2012 and 2016 of subsidies to repair 12 temples that had suffered Bt62 million in damage.

Accused alongside Nopparat in the first part of the investigation were NBO temple development and religious funding division head Wasawat Kittitheerasit, NBO deputy director-general Pranom Kongpikul, NBO official Natthawadee Tantayawisarnsut and a civilian named Siwaroj Piyaratseree.

There were also three other civilians and one monk facing accusations in this part of probe. The authorities conducted searches on September 21 at 14 locations in Nakhon Pathom in the second part of the probe, concerning the alleged Bt141 million embezzlement in 2012-2017 of three types of subsidies to temples.

These are the fund to maintain and restore temples, the fund to support Buddhism propagation and the fund to support 23 Phrapariyatidhamma schools.

The September 21 searches had yielded 80 gold bars, each weighing about 15 grams, some land title deeds and other documents at the house of NBO former directors Phanom Sornsilp. These items were seized for inspection.

Officers filed the charges under the Criminal Code's Section 157 (dereliction of duty) and Section 147 (abuse of authority in the appropriation of funds) against Nopparat.

The second batch probe identified 19 suspects comprising 13 civil servants, four monks and two civilians. Besides the five above-named suspects in the first part of the probe, who were also accused in the second part, another nine NOB officials were named.

They were Phanom, Sing Buri Buddhism Office director Narongdej Chainet, NBO academic Pattana Su-ammartmontri, Lampang Buddhism Office director Boonlert Sopa, NBO Phrapariyatidhamma education division head Pornpen Kittitarangkoon, NBO Buddhist religious sites division Chatchai Chuchua, NBO public works expert Phayong Sileung, NBO inspector-general Wiroj Oonsap, and Samut Songkhram Buddhism Office director Kaew Chidtakob.

One civilian suspect, Paitoon Kannamo, was also named while four monk suspects' names were withheld.