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12 Aug, 2002

Ousted TAT Governor Goes To Court

The action initiated by former Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Pradech Phayakvichien against the TAT chairman and board seeks to declare unlawful and illegal the order removing him from the post. It will also have broader ramifications on the search for a new governor.

The Administrative Court is expected to take at least two weeks to decide whether or not to accept the case.

By his deposition last week, the former governor made clear that he intended to signal politicians and the boards of state enterprises that they cannot abruptly terminate years of public service by government officials for ‘personal considerations’.

Mr Pradech filed his suit in the Administrative Court one day before the closing date of applications for the governorship. Many in the Thai tourism industry believe the search is a procedural formality designed to pave the way for acting governor and deputy governor of marketing Mrs Juthamas Siriwan to be confirmed in that post.

He alleges that the order of his removal was “unlawfully enforced” and is not in line with the Cabinet’s resolution. He claims, “It was made without any legal authority but based on personal consideration….The process of preparing this order was also totally incorrect and unfair.”

Mr Pradech claims he seeks not vengeance but justice because the courts are the “last course of action” available to him. He cites Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office and TAT Chairman Mr Somsak Thepsutin as first defendant and the entire TAT board as second defendant.

The former governor was suspended on 3 January 2002 pending an investigation into allegations that he held shares in a company that had been awarded TAT contracts. The investigation found that he did hold such shares but cleared him of any wrongdoing and corruption.

Instead, he was found to have been “unethical” in holding the shares and officially moved to an advisory position, effective June 4.

The former governor says this conclusion was only designed to “create reasons” for his removal in the absence of any other conclusive finding. He said it is not clear how the TAT board defines “ethics”.

The underlying implication of the former governor’s complaint is that the Cabinet resolution authorising the investigation was supposed to focus only on whether he had violated any laws or committed any wrongdoing. Having found no evidence in either case, the TAT board over-stepped its jurisdiction in ruling on the ‘ethics’ of his actions, he implies.

Whether or not the court accepts the case, Mr Pradech says the simple fact of seeking legal recourse will signal politicians that they could face similar actions from officials who feel unfairly removed from their positions.

“No matter how this case will end, it will become an example for all administrative agencies,” he says, claiming that his removal has already affected the morale of TAT staff as well as the tourism industry.

Neither the former governor nor his staff would comment further.

Mr Pradech became governor in October 1999, when the then TAT board voted unanimously for him over Mrs Juthamas. A Democrat-led coalition was in power at the time, and the TAT chairman was Mrs Pavena Hongsakula.

Last week, Deputy Governor for Planning and Development Mr Patpong Abhijatapong threw his hat into the ring for the governorship. His entire career of about 30 years has been spent in marketing positions. By contrast, Mrs Juthamas’ career has been in development and administration.

Since Mr Pradech’s removal and her own elevation to acting governor in January, Mr Juthamas has come into frequent contact with Deputy PM Somkit Jatusripitak as well as with Mr Somsak himself. Mr Patpong is not considered ‘close’ to any of these ministers.

One veteran industry figure watching the game said, “Like with all such appointments, it appears that the most important criteria will be not what you know, but who you know.”

A member of the selection committee, interviewed last week on condition of anonymity, bristled at the suggestion that the committee would go through the motions and then rubber-stamp the appointment of Mrs Juthamas.

He described it as an “insult to the integrity” of the committee.

While seeking to clear his name, Mr Pradech’s resort to the courts is designed to public attention to bear precisely on the ethics and integrity of both the minister and the TAT board.

In 1998, the TAT board ordered an investigation into the millions of baht lost by the TAT in its abortive foray into the world of duty free shops. After the government changed in January 2001, a copy of the investigation report was sent to Minister Somsak in March 2001.

The report very specifically says, “Mrs. Juthamas Siriwan who worked as TDFS Acting Executive Manager had shown inefficiency and unprofessionalism in managing TDFS (the Thailand Duty Free Shops).”

A major reason why Mrs Juthamas lost the governorship earlier, the report was also sent to the Cabinet whose current secretary-general, Mr Wissanu Krea-ngam, is chairman of the governorship selection committee.

Mr Pradech’s challenge to Mr Somsak is clear: If one official investigation has found him “unethical,” will the minister and the TAT board be equally “ethical” in considering the findings of other investigations when going through the selection process? Or will there be a cover-up?

The list of qualifications for applicants to the post of governor has also been carefully written. It says they must “never have been dismissed, removed or laid off from government office, state enterprise or public company as a result of corruption.”

Only “corruption” is cited. Nothing else.

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