Adoption gumshoe gives detailed report on baby-scam payoffs
Written by Liam Cochrane and Sam Rith
A US immigration official investigating adoptions in Cambodia has accused officials at the highest levels of government of complicity in scams that involved hundreds of babies and millions of dollars.
Richard Cross, the lead investigator for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, made the accusations during an April 15 presentation about notorious adoption facilitator Lauryn Galindo.
Speaking at Samford University, in the US state of Alabama, he showed a photograph of Galindo leaning across a table and passing an envelope to Senate President Chea Sim.
"This isn't a small-time person she's sharing tips with. But she says, 'I'm really happy to share the wealth.' Well, this gentleman right here is the president of the communist party [sic] in Cambodia, Mr Chea Sim." said Cross, referring to Sim's role in the Cambodian People's Party.
"And I don't think what she is handing to him right now is a prom invitation - it appears to be a thick envelope," he said.
A video of Cross' presentation was made available on the university's Web site, but it gave no indication of when the photograph was taken, the contents of the envelope, or the context of the meeting.
Chea Sim's chief of cabinet, Mom Sarin, hung up the phone three times when contacted about the allegations. But in December 2004, Chea Sim's chief of protocol, Kunthea Borey, told the Post that Galindo contributed only humanitarian aid for orphans.
Borey said that Chea Sim, who is also president of the Senate, was in no position to help with adoptions since that was the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
However, Galindo has described Chea Sim in interviews as being "like a father to me", and the now-ailing politician intervened in 1999 when Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong was pushing for an investigation into bribery allegations against her.
Beginning in 2002, Cross carried out a US criminal investigations into Lauryn Galindo, who facilitated the adoptions of around 800 babies and children from Cambodia between the early 1990s and 2001, earning her an estimated $9 million.
In December last year, Galindo pleaded guilty to visa fraud and money laundering in relation to the adoptions. She was jailed for 18 months and US authorities seized possessions, including her $1.4 million beachfront home in Hawaii.
The US investigation unearthed a lucrative "business" in selling Cambodian children as "products" and offered a rare insight into the detailed workings of corruption in Cambodia.
In his presentation, Cross identified a low-level government official, Heang Veasna, or "Mr Lucky", as the recipient of tens of thousands of dollars in alleged bribe money from Galindo.
He showed the audience a photo of a receipt found during a search of Galinda's house for $100, paid to Veasna to open an account at the Cambodian Commercial Bank.
Galindo then instructed prospective adoptive parents in the US to wire $2,250 to Veasna's account as a "required voluntary donation", said Cross, echoing information contained in Galindo's June 2004 plea agreement in which the former professional hula dancer agreed to a list of facts in the case.
Transaction records found in Galindo's house show that on just one day in April 1999, Veasna received $50,000 for the processing of 29 adoptions, Cross said, noting that officially there are no fees for adoptions in Cambodia.
Cross estimated that $2.5 million in "orphanage donations" were sent to Cambodia, with most of it pocketed or shared as bribes.
"This was how it was run in Cambodia," he said. "This was the norm, not the aberration."
"When I first came into this investigation, you think of orphans and you think, 'Oh God, this is great, so much humanitarian work involved'," Cross said. "It's a business, and people forget it. It is a major business with a lot of money to be made."
As part of Galindo's sentencing, Cross submitted to the Seattle court notes of an interview with Dr Nancy Hendrie, who worked with Cambodian orphans through The Sharing Foundation.
According Cross' evidence, Hendrie said Veasna was the bagman of the operation who passed the bribes up to Ith Sam Heng, Minister of Social Affairs.
"Payments to Ith Sam Heng were made through an intermediary named Heang Veasna, who was a lower-level Cambodian public official," stated Cross's notes of his interview with Hendrie.
Hendrie has since denied the statement, saying she was misquoted and never saw money being given to Ith Sam Heng.
Ith Sam Heng was contacted for this story but refused to comment, hanging up the phone.
Cross said that Veasna once sent a fax to Galindo saying he worked "at the Cambodia secretary of state" but did not identify which ministry.
However, two of Galindo's former drivers and an official who worked in Ith Sam Heng's cabinet in the late 1990s identified a man they said acted as as a go-between for Galindo and Ith Sam Heng.
They said Veasna had worked as deputy director of international cooperation for the Ministry of Labor, which at the time of the adoptions was part of the Ministry of Social Affairs, but he has since been promoted to director.
Contacted on May 19 , Veasna denied working for Galindo, but admitted his position meant that he could grant foreigners access to Ith Sam Heng.
"When some visitors want to meet the minister, they contact us at the international cooperation department, and then I bring them to meet the minister or bring the visitor to the cabinet [of the minister]," Veasna said by phone.
"I didn't know which one was Mrs Lauryn Galindo, because at that time there were more than 100 organizations [who wanted to meet the minister]," he said, adding that sometimes he acted as translator for these meetings.
"[You are getting] confused. I was not an official for cooperating for her. Maybe she had other Khmer officials who were her staff that I didn't know."
Galindo's sister, Lynn Devin, has also been indicted for her involvement in the adoption racket, but no Cambodians have yet been prosecuted.
Cross noted that Galindo was not charged with human trafficking because US law only covers trafficking for sexual or forced labor purposes.
"You can get away with buying babies around the world as a United States citizen - it's not a crime," he said.
The US began a moratorium on adoptions from Cambodia in 2001.