Business executive says company 'barely made any profit' in Covid flight scandal

By Pham Du, Thanh Lam   July 20, 2023 | 12:39 am PT
The head of a Hanoi travel firm claimed it made little profit from the Covid-19 repatriation flights, having paid bribes worth VND38.5 billion ($1.6 million) to get flights approved.

The Blue Sky Trading, Services and Tourism Company had bribed former officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Government Office, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Public Security and other local authorities to get 109 flights approved, prosecutors said at the ongoing trial related to the scandal in Hanoi.

Each approved flight required a bribe of VND353 million, and with around 251 passengers on board on average, each passenger would have to shoulder around VND1.4 million extra in ticket prices, they said.

Among those who received bribes, former secretary to the deputy health minister Pham Trung Kien, and Vu Anh Tuan, former official at the immigration management department under the public security ministry, received around VND55 million per flight.

Former deputy foreign minister To Anh Dung and former deputy chairman of the Quang Nam People’s Committee Tran Van Tan received around VND45.8 million per flight from Blue Sky.

Le Hong Son, general director of Blue Sky, who is on trial for giving bribes, refuted the claim that businesses cooperated with officials and exploited the pandemic to make a profit.

He said it was "really tough" to organize a flight, as the firm had to find an appropriate pricing range and the safest accommodations for passengers. Passengers were also fed three times a day, plus other costs, making each flight organized by Blue Sky "very costly."

"Businesses barely made any profit," Son claimed, adding that certain quarantine locations were four or five-star hotels, causing ticket prices to reach dozens of millions of Vietnamese dong.

Le Hong Son, general director of the Blue Sky Trading, Services and Tourism Company, is escorted to the Hanoi Peoples Court for giving bribes in the Covid-19 repatriation flight scandal, July 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Le Hong Son, general director of the Blue Sky Trading, Services and Tourism Company, is escorted to the Hanoi People's Court for giving bribes in the Covid-19 repatriation flight scandal, July 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Son said while it is undeniable people think that businesses only care about profit, such a thing was untrue amid a pandemic, as he also "has humanity and felt the pain of fellow people."

Son’s lawyer Giang Hong Thanh said that within a span of 10 months, from April 2020 to January 2022, the government approved 372 flights. Among them, 109 flights were by Blue Sky.

"Figuratively speaking, for every three Vietnamese citizens repatriated, one of them made it back home thanks to Blue Sky," the lawyer said, adding that 27,368 passengers were on those 109 flights, hoping that such facts would provide his client with leniency from the court.

Lawyers on Tuesday and Wednesday said several officials were "forced" to take the bribes from businesses, with several initially refusing, but then constantly contacted by businesses, such as the case of former Vietnamese ambassador in Japan Vu Hong Nam.

While Nam "couldn't resist temptation," businesses were also at fault for having bribed Nam, lawyers argued.

However, lawyers representing those who gave the bribes gave numerous counterpoints.

Lawyer Pham Quang Bien, representing Phan Thi Mai, director of the Hanoi Star company, on Wednesday said the main reason the bribes took place was due to attempts to get flights approved that were not responded to or accepted by the authorities. It meant business owners, like Mai, had to directly contact officials to get approval.

"During these times, money issues had been mentioned to Mai," the lawyer said, adding that complex procedures when it comes to flight approvals had also contributed to the bribes.

Lawyer Giang Hong Thanh, defending Le Hong Son, general director of Blue Sky, said the bribery was a "trading market."

He said businesses reported officials making things difficult for them, and the problem would only go away with money. If the bribes were not given, businesses would have suffered great losses due to unapproved flights, he argued.

"So do businesses have another choice? No, it’s either giving the money or stop organizing the flights," Thanh said, adding that if none of the businesses had given the bribes, the 93,000 passengers on combo flights might not have made it back to Vietnam.

"In the end, from certain perspectives, businesses were also the victims of the bribery system in this case."

54 accused are now standing trial before the Hanoi People' Court in the Covid-19 repatriation flight bribery scandal, with a total of VND165 billion worth of bribes having been given.

At least one death sentence had been recommended by prosecutors. The trial, which began on July 11, is expected to last a month.

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