By KAS CHANWANPEN
THE NATIONAL Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) yesterday cleared Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan of wrongdoing over a collection of luxury wristwatches, accepting his claim that the timepieces belonged to a now-dead friend.
The diamond rings Prawit was also pictured wearing were passed on to him by his deceased parent, the NACC decided. Neither the watches nor the rings had been declared as assets by Prawit when he took up his Cabinet post.
After taking a full year to investigate the matter, the anti-graft body ruled that General Prawit had no intention of concealing his assets when he entered government.
Prawit, who is also the defence minister in the junta-backed government, faced an outpouring of public criticism after photos of him wearing wristwatches and rings each worth millions of baht went viral on the Internet.
The photos indicated he had at least 22 expensive watches and three diamond rings that he had failed to declare in the asset list submitted to the NACC as required by law when he became a Cabinet member.
In four letters to the agency responding to the allegation, Prawit claimed the watches had been lent to him by a friend who was a collector. That friend was identified as Patawat Suksriwong, a deceased billionaire.
Prawit had already returned the watches to their rightful owners, said the NACC.
Prawit said he had inherited the rings from his mother after taking up his Cabinet post, and so did not include them in the asset list.
The investigating committee interviewed individuals and sought information from agencies including the Customs Department and the Foreign Affairs Ministry, as well as watch dealers. It found that the billionaire Patawat was a watch collector and had often lent items from his collection to friends. Prawit was among those beneficiaries, the NACC said.
NACC secretary-general Worawit Sukboon yesterday told a press conference that the agency had found 21 of the 22 watches in question had belonged to Patawat.
Twenty of these were found in Patawat’s house, he said.
One watch remains missing, but investigators did find its warranty car, he added. That left one watch whose ownership could not be confirmed, but the NACC believed it may also have belonged to Patawat, said Worawit.
Patawat had no business dealings with the Defence Ministry led by Prawit, the NACC added, implying that the watches were not loaned with any motivation other than friendship.
The eight-member commission voted five to three that Prawit did not intend to conceal his assets, Worawit said.
The three commissioners in the minority did not find Prawit guilty but said the evidence was insufficient and called for the investigation continue, he added.
NACC chair Pol General Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, who has a close personal connection with Prawit as his former subordinate, had withdrawn from the probe at the start, Worawit said.
Political activist Ekachai Hongkangwan, who filed the initial asset-concealment complaint with the NACC, told The Nation he would appeal the case with the agency after the New Year holiday.
“I never questioned who were the owners of the watches. This is about whether or not Prawit borrowed the expensive watches from Patawat,” Ekachai said.
“If he really borrowed the watches, he should be scrutinised for receiving such expensive items. It could be illegal.”