Fallen petro chief has second appeal rejected, gets total 30 years in jail

A court in Hanoi on Tuesday upheld a 18-year sentence handed down to a former head of state-owned oil giant PetroVietnam in March for economic management violations.

Dinh La Thang, a former political star and former chairman of PetroVietnam, as well as his co-defendants, had their appeals rejected after the court found no basis or new evidence to have their sentences commuted.

Mr. Dinh La Thang in the appeal court in Hanoi June 26. Photo: VNA

At a ten-day trial that concluded in March in Hanoi, Thang and six other former PetroVietnam officials were found guilty of illegally plowing ahead with a 20 percent stake purchase in Ocean Bank in 2008 despite being aware of its “poor capacity.” The stake, worth VND800 billion ($35 million), was then completely written off when the central bank took over OceanBank in 2015.

The court ruled that Thang and his accomplices were reponsible for the losses. Thang was ordered to return 75 percent of the lost investment, and the other six defendants were held accountable for the rest.

Thang and five of his co-defendants subsequently filed appeals, asking for commuted sentences and for the order to return the losses to be overturned.

At the one-week appeal trial that opened last Tuesday, Thang said prosecutors’ allegations “lacked conscience, were unjust and unobjective,” and asked the court to rule him innocent.

According to Thang, his decision to invest in OceanBank was only made due to the fact PetroVietnam’s proposal to open its own bank had been turned down. The decision helped prevent the VND300 billion PetroVietnam had invested in the banking project from going to waste so should be praised, not criminalized, Thang argued.

Thang refuted the court’s conclusion that he was aware of OceanBank’s “poor capacity” by claiming that between the stake purchase and 2013, PetroVietnam still received dividends from the bank and OceanBank was still highly rated by the State Bank.

He also argued that the reason behind PetroVietnam’s loss was that the group had been blocked from divesting from OceanBank and the bank was taken over by the central bank for zero dong shortly afterwards.

Regarding the court order to return VND600 billion, Thang claimed that as he had left the oil giant in August 2011, he should not be held responsible for losses the group incurred after that date. Prosecutors also failed to take into account that the investment had generated a profit of VND244 billion for PetroVietnam, which should have been subtracted from the losses.

The court however dismissed Thang’s arguments, ruling that his investment decisions were made illegally without the prime minister’s permission and went against a number of the government’s directives. OceanBank’s poor capacity was also proven in a trial into violations at the bank last September.

Last month, a Hanoi court also rejected Thang’s appeal against a 13-year sentence he received in January for economic management violations which caused million-dollar losses at a construction subsidiary of PetroVietnam.
With both appeals rejected, he will be serving a combined prison term of 30 years, the maximum allowed under Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Thang, 58, served as board chairman of PetroVietnam between 2006 and 2011, before his career took off as Minister of Transport in Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s cabinet and then Party leader of Ho Chi Minh City.

Thang was arrested last December after being fired from his position in HCMC and voted out of the all-powerful Politburo, the Party’s decision-making body, in a move that international analysts have called “unprecedented.” He has also been expelled from the Communist Party, putting his 30-year political career to an end.

His fall from grace is the biggest casualty of Vietnam’s sweeping corruption crackdown spearheaded by Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong over the past couple of years.

Trong, 74, who took office in 2011, has described the campaign as being at an “all time high.”