Business head accused of giving $3.17M bribes in Covid test kit scandal

By Pham Du   August 21, 2023 | 11:34 pm PT
Business head accused of giving $3.17M bribes in Covid test kit scandal
Phan Quoc Viet, CEO and chairman of Viet A Company, at a police station in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Public Security
Phan Quoc Viet, CEO and chairman of Viet A Company, stands accused of having given bribes on 18 different occasions, including 15 times personally, to secure permits to sell a Covid-19 test kit at hiked prices.

Viet is facing charges over giving bribes worth more than $3.17 million, and violating bidding regulations.

The investigation has found the production for a Covid test kit in Vietnam cost a maximum of VND143,000 (US$6), but Viet A won approval to sell each kit for VND470,000.

In 2020-2021, the company produced more than 8.7 million Covid test kits and managed to sell 8.3 million of them at the hiked price, earning VND1.235 trillion ($51.85 million) of "illegal gains."

The investigation found that the bribery scheme mostly involved health officials and some officials at the science and technology ministry.

Those having received most of Viet's alleged bribes are former Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long, who police found took $2.25 million, and former Hai Duong Province Party chief Pham Xuan Thang, $1.13 million.

Viet, who had a close relationship with Nguyen Huynh, then Long's secretary, first bribed Long in December 2020.

He brought a bag to Huynh's house in Hanoi and asked him to give it to Long. Huynh checked the bag later and found $200,000 in cash. He brought the bag to Long the same night, the investigation found.

On another occasion, when Huynh was receiving Viet at his house for dinner, he told Viet he was going to get a bank loan to buy a Volvo, and Viet promised to give him some money.

In January 2021, Viet asked a subordinate to bring VND2 billion and give it to Huynh at a parking lot in front of a hotel in Hanoi.

A month later, according to investigators, Huynh called Viet on the phone, transferring Long's message about "needing to raise a large sum of money to deal with some work."

Viet asked for a number and was told: "One million USD, as soon as possible."

Viet agreed over the amount and asked for time to prepare it.

Several days later, Viet brought $1 million and VND2 billion to Huynh's house, saying the extra money was his Tet gift for Huynh. The holiday peaked on Feb. 12 that year.

That same night, while driving Long home, Huynh brought along Viet's money. Long checked it later and it was packed in 10,000 notes of $100.

In November 2021, Huynh texted Viet via Whatsapp and once again said that Long needed help with a big amount of money.

Huynh also arranged for Viet to meet Long directly at Huynh's apartment in Ba Dinh District. But Long could not come to the meeting, so Viet gave Huynh another $1 million "for the boss to take care of his work."

Police found that Viet directly gave money to Long once in June 2021, when Viet came to the Health Ministry’s headquarters asking to support the pandemic vaccine development campaign.

He gave Long a bag that contained $50,000, police said.

Former Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long. Photo by VnExpress/Huy Vu

Former Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long. Photo by VnExpress/Huy Vu

Also at the Health Ministry’s headquarters, Viet gave Nguyen Minh Tuan, head of the Medical Works and Equipment Department, $300,000 on two occasions. He gave $100,000 in another time to Nguyen Nam Lien, head of the ministry’s Finance Planning Department, which Lien refused to take but Viet just left it behind saying "it’s a little thank you money."

Viet gave Nguyen Van Trinh, an office of the Government Office, $100,000 each on two occasions at a coffee shop near Trinh’s house.

The investigation found Viet also spent money bribing provincial health officials so that they approved for his test kits to be used in their areas.

In northern Hai Duong Province, when he faced competition with several providers of cheaper test kits, Viet came to the office of the province’s Party chief Pham Xuan Thang in February 2021 and gave him $100,000 to ask for Viet A test kits to be used at Hai Duong’s industrial parks. Thang took the money and agreed.

Viet also asked his employees to transfer VND27 billion to Pham Duy Tuyen, director of Hai Duong’s Center of Disease Control, visa Tuyen’s friends and in-laws’ bank accounts.

Regarding officials at the Ministry of Science and Technology, Viet texted minister Chu Ngoc Anh in August 2020, asking to meet him, but received no response. Via a third person, he was taken to Anh’s office that same afternoon.

According to statements collected by the police, Viet brought a bag containing $200,000 along with several medical masks and hand gel bottles produced by Viet A.

Viet spent around 15 minutes talking with Anh about pandemic policy in Vietnam. Then he placed the bag on the table, giving Anh instructions about the hand gel before putting it back into the bag, saying: "I just received some payment, so I come to thank you for having supported me (in Covid test kit research). If the situation goes well, I will visit you more."

According to the investigation, Anh put the bag away and only found out that it contained money when he collected his things before moving to a new office as head of Hanoi’s People’s Committee a month later.

Trinh Thanh Hung, deputy head of the Department of Science and Technology for Economic Technical Branchesat the science ministry, was considered the person playing the decisive role in helping Viet A win permits to research Covid test kits and use the research results to trade the kits.

Viet agreed to share a percentage of his revenues with Hung.

After Viet A received payment from the Health Ministry of the first shipment of 200,000 test kits, Viet brought $100,000 to Hung’s house in August 2020, saying thanks and promising to visit him later if situation went well, just like he told Anh.

Hung received $250,000 the second time in a similar manner.

Pham Cong Tac, Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, also agreed to meet Viet in April 2021 when the businessman gave him a bag with VND100 million.

Anh and Tac are facing charges of violating regulations in management of state assets. They were not accused of taking bribes as they did not engage in any discussions suggesting bribery and did not cause difficulties for the business, police said.

The officials were arrested in June 2022.

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