Former health minister denies asking for bribe in Covid test kit scandal

By Pham Du, Thanh Lam   January 3, 2024 | 08:25 pm PT
Former health minister denies asking for bribe in Covid test kit scandal
Former Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long at a trial in Hanoi, Jan. 3, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh
Former health minister Nguyen Thanh Long has admitted to a court he received US$2.25 million from a Covid-19 test kit-making company but denied asking for the bribe.

At a trial that opened in Hanoi Wednesday, Long, 57, denied an allegation he had insinuated that Phan Quoc Viet, CEO and chairman of Viet A Company, should pay him a bribe so that he could sell his test kits at inflated prices.

Long and his secretary Nguyen Huynh are accused of helping Viet A register its test kits with the Ministry of Health for distribution and price negotiation, and demanding a bribe for it.

The former minister told the judges that the situation then was "extremely urgent" and that he only knew about the test kit made by Viet A two days before he received the letter seeking approval.

He admitted to taking $2.25 million from Viet through his secretary Huynh.

"This happened 10 months after Viet A's test kits were approved for distribution and Huynh told me that 'Viet A’s business has been good so far, and the company wants to say thanks'."

He claimed he never suggested Viet should pay a bribe as Huynh testified in court.

A police officer escorts Nguyen Huynh, former secretary for the Minister of Heath, to a court in Hanoi, January 3, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

A police officer escorts Nguyen Huynh, former secretary for then Minister of Heath Nguyen Thanh Long, to a court in Hanoi, Jan. 3, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Trinh Thanh Hung, a deputy department head at the Ministry of Science and Technology, began a research project to make a test kit after Covid broke out.

He signed up Viet and Ho Anh Son, a former deputy director of a research institute run by the Military Medical School, for the purpose.

The school was commissioned to make the kit, and it received more than VND18 billion ($740,000) in government funding, but the kit submitted for licensing by the health ministry was Viet A’s.

Viet A had earlier applied for a license on its own, but was refused.

After thus illegally obtaining the license in March 2020, Viet A produced and sold it on a large scale.

But in June 2022 the health ministry revoked the license after determining the licensing process had not followed proper protocols.

Huynh told the court that Long had twice instructed him to tell Viet to pay bribes to "take care of the business."

He claimed not to know "what business it was," but he was aware that Viet had paid Long $1 million in bribes on two occasions.

Long continued to deny Huynh's testimony, saying he "did not remember" what he said exactly, but "there is absolutely no way that 10 months after licensing the test kit, I would ask Viet to pay bribes."

He said his secretary might have misunderstood something he said.

He had not given Viet or Viet A any preferential treatment and that he even refused to promote the company, he said.

When asked by the judges why if he considered himself "fair and just" he took the bribe eventually, Long said: "I was wrong. I’m sorry for that."

He had returned the bribe money before the trial began.

Also in court, two former ministry officials admitted to accepting bribes from Viet A.

The head of its department of health equipment and works, Nguyen Minh Tuan, took $100,000 while the head of the department of financial planning, Nguyen Nam Lien, took $300,000.

The prosecution said Viet paid bribes of VND106 billion to a number of officials.

Last week a Hanoi Military Court sentenced Viet to 25 years in jail for abuse of power and fraud.

It also sentenced several officials from the science and defense ministries for enabling the company to get a license for the test kit as a government product.

Long's trial is expected to take 20 days.

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