Ex-protocol chief at MFA pleads guilty to cheating

THE former Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) protocol chief at the heart of the pineapple tarts fraud case pleaded guilty on Monday.

Lim Cheng Hoe, a 61-year-old public service veteran, pilfered $88,997 of taxpayers' money, mostly on thousands of boxes of tarts he claimed he bought but never did. He is expected to be sentenced on Thursday.

The prosecution is asking for an 18-month jail sentence, citing a series of aggravating factors. Not only was he a public servant who abused his position to cheat the Government, but he also committed his deliberate acts repeatedly and over more than four years.

Cutting a remorseful figure during Monday's hour-long hearing, Lim grimaced and furrowed his brows as the statement of facts, which he had accepted without any qualifications, was read.

He came to court "prepared to start serving his sentence", said defence counsel Philip Fong.

In mitigation, his lawyers argued that a prison term of between eight and 10 months and a fine was enough.

Not only did Lim fully pay back the money, but he also never benefited personally. Instead, he made the false claims only to cut through bureaucratic red tape, said Mr Fong.

He added that Lim used the money to buy gifts for dignitaries on occasions, such as parties held by foreign diplomats based in Singapore, which the MFA did not allow reimbursements for.

"He felt that the lack of such a policy hindered his ability to carry out his duties effectively," said Mr Fong.

Details emerged on Monday of how Lim, a non-graduate who rose through the ranks over 38 years in public service, concocted his ruse. As chief of protocol, he was responsible for organising official overseas visits by local delegations, as well as incoming visits by foreign diplomats.

From February 2008 to May 2012, he submitted 60 claims - most of them for 10,075 boxes of pineapple tarts, which are popular as gifts for foreign delegates. But only 2,226 were used.

The court heard how in 2007, Lim became a regular at a pastry shop which issued receipts only on pieces of paper torn from disused books. Soon, Lim asked for blank receipts. The shopkeepers agreed, thinking their handwriting was unclear.

Lim then got an unknowing friend to fill up the receipts, claiming the shopkeepers could not write in English. Lim stamped them as "paid" himself.

Some of the false claims also involved wine. He did submit genuine receipts for 248 bottles, but only 89 were given as gifts.

The Commercial Affairs Department started a probe after an MFA official blew the whistle in June 2012.

The prosecution made it clear that each time Lim submitted a fake claim and declared it correct on the online submission form, he deceived MFA officials into putting taxpayers' money into his personal bank account.

His false claims, the prosecution added, were a "gross betrayal of the trust placed in him".

Deputy Public Prosecutor Kelvin Kow said yesterday: "The accused had made the deliberate decision to override MFA policies through criminal deception.

"This cannot be condoned."

Lim's guilty plea to 10 charges - with another 50 to be considered during sentencing - marked a stunning fall from grace for the Public Administration Medal (Silver) recipient in 2009.

District Judge Eddy Tham, who extended Lim's $100,000 bail, said he required time to "weigh carefully" the punishment.

The maximum penalty for cheating is 10 years' jail and a fine for each charge.


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