10-16 April 2015 #753

Getting away with (almost) anything

The Supreme Court has released on light bail a fake doctor charged with embezzling millions meant for upgrading medical care in Humla
Bhrikuti Rai

Almost six months after the Kathmandu District Court ordered the arrest of fake doctor Yeshe Lodoe Lama in connection with financial irregularities at a hospital in Humla supported by an American charity, the Supreme Court released him on a Rs 1 million bail on 4 March.

QUACK: Yeshe Lodoe Lama examining a patient in Humla in 2010

The decision by a joint bench led by Chief Justice Ram Kumar Prasad Shah himself and Justice Jagdish Sharma Poudel overturned earlier rulings of the district and appellate courts and granted Lama bail citing ‘present available evidence do not show that he is at fault’.

Lama’s medical certificate was found to be fake, and he had been in judicial custody since September 2014 after the Kathmandu CDO found him guilty of embezzlement of Rs 70 million in grants from overseas donors for the Humla hospital, and for submitting fraudulent documents to the courts.

The expose in Nepali Times in May 2013 first brought out Lama’s fraud in the open.

Lama’s attempt to buy his release failed the first time. According to one official involved in the investigation, Lama had offered Rs 20 million to stop the probe at the DAO last year. He had such close ties with the officials there that he managed to escape from custody after being tipped off about the possibility of arrest.

Chief District Officer at the time, Basantaraj Gautam, threatened officials that if they couldn’t bring back Lama they would lose their jobs. Sure enough, an hour later the police presented Lama at the office.

Yeshe then tried to accuse his American supporter, Michael Daube of Citta USA, of stealing from him and presented a receipt to prove that Daube had asked him to withdraw Rs 34 million. The investigation later found that the signature and the documents were fraudulent, which turned out to be the strongest evidence against Lama in the case.   

Video of Yeshe Lodoe Lama talking about how Citta hospital was built with the support of individual donors from abroad

“How could this even happen,” Daube asked in a Skype interview after hearing of Lama’s release. Daube, who is a New York-based artist and philanthropist, lodged a complaint against Lama at the DAO in Kathmandu for misappropriation of funds which then ordered that Citta Nepal’s bank accounts be frozen. Although Lama submitted audit reports, Daube says they were neither timely nor transparent. Even the land for the complex in Simikot with a modern 15-bed hospital equipped with an operation theatre and special emergency wards, was registered in the name of Lama’s father, Tsering Lama.

Legal experts find it odd that Chief Justice Shah and Justice Poudel decided to grant Lama minimum bail despite overwhelming evidence of fraud and malfeasance. Chief Justices don’t usually take up cases like these in their own bench unless there are serious constitutional or legal issues involved, they add.   

A letter from the Banaras Hindu University, stating that Lama’s doctor certificate was fake.

Chief Justice Shah retires in July and his 4 March verdict states: ‘If new evidence surfaces later then the case will move ahead accordingly.’ These words paved way for Lama’s bail. A retired Supreme Court Justice who did not want to be identified told us that given the extensive body of evidence already against Lama, the order to release him was highly questionable.

In a similar case, the Supreme Court in 2010 ordered that the property of the charitable organisation Buddha Foundation Pokhara Nepal couldn’t be transferred to a private company.

Rumours of financial irregularities and mismanagement of funds had been swirling ever since Lama appointed family members and relatives on the board of Citta Nepal and registered the hospital property in his father’s name. The facilities at the Citta Hospital in Humla were only used during the occasional medical camps and Lama was found selling donated medicines at steep prices to local patients. The hospital had an annual budget of nearly $90,000 until funding was stopped in mid-2012.

People lining up for free checkups at the Citta Hospital in Simikot built with American charity money.

Volunteers over the years had raised concerns over Lama’s medical qualifications, but Citta USA did not act on those early red flags. Then in the summer of 2012 a Spanish volunteer doctor at Citta tipped off Daube. “Lama knew nothing about medicine and surgery,” recalled Marta Faig, a Spanish physician who was conducting a health camp at Citta.

Lama (in centre with stethescope) posing with other staff at Citta Nepal Medical Centre in 2010.
Since Lama was registered as a medical doctor at the Nepal Medical Council (Licence Number 4734), Daube did not feel it was necessary to verify his credentials. But after complaints, Banaras Hindu University confirmed that his doctor’s certificate was fake.

Daube first met Lama in 1997 at a monastery in Sarnath, India where Lama was studying traditional medicine. In a district with health indicators much worse than the rest of the country and decrepit government hospitals, it was all too easy for Lama to convince the well-meaning American to invest. Lama registered Citta Nepal as an NGO on 21 July 2003 at the Kathmandu DAO.

Daube now admits he was duped. “All these years I thought I was helping a young doctor who sacrificed a lucrative medical career in the city to improve the health of fellow Humlis,” he said.

Lama has since changed the name of the hospital to HEED Nepal with Lama serving as Chair. Yeshe didn’t reply to our emails and phone calls. Since the apex court granted Lama bail, legal experts fear it could mean that a lower district court could hand him a lenient sentence.   

Said Daube: “Seems like Yeshe Lodoe Lama is trying to buy time, my only hope is that due diligence will be done to put him in jail so that health care can finally flourish for that impoverished region.”

Bar-bench tussle

Nepal’s Supreme Court and the Nepal Bar Association (NBA) have been on a collision course after a recent NBA assembly in Chitwan highlighted corruption in the judiciary, and called for action against rogue judges.

This is the first time the NBA has been so outspoken, and Chair Hari Krishna Karki (first pic, right) said: “In the past we’ve only used words like ‘malpractice’ and ‘wrongdoing’, now we’re calling a spade a spade and saying it is corruption in the judiciary.”  

Chief Justice Ram Kumar Prasad Shah (pic, right) tried defending his institution by taking the unusual step of issuing a statement from his personal secretariat. He asked the NBA to provide evidence of corruption if they had any. Nepal’s constitution doesn’t give the Chief Justice’s secretariat authority to demand evidence of corruption of judges and to carry out investigation. That falls under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council (also headed by the Chief Justice).

Says Karki: “The Chief Justice’s statement implied that he would investigate after receiving evidence. So we told him that he didn’t have the right to do so and would present the evidence if only the parliament and Judicial Council so demanded. ”  

If the Supreme Court and the NBA are serious about tackling corruption in the judiciary, it will not just benefit the larger public and the people in Humla, but perhaps also make Chief Justices more accountable in future.

Fleecing donors

Citta’s donors are not the only ones to be hoodwinked in Nepal. Japanese philanthropist Takaji Yamaguchi had been supporting Buddha Foundation in Pokhara to provide health services to the poor and needy. But when Dharmaraj Shrestha, a doctor who ran the foundation, tried to transfer the charity’s property to a private company called Buddha Hospital and Research Centre Pvt Ltd, the case was taken to the Supreme Court.

In September 2010, the full bench of Supreme Court judges Khilraj Regmi, Sushila Karki and Prakash Wasti ruled that ‘under no excuse can the financial support and health equipment received by Buddha Foundation Pokhara Nepal be used by Buddha Hospital and Research Centre which is established with a commercial motive’.

The Supreme Court’s precedent on this case is the only ray of hope for reopening the Citta Nepal hospital in Humla. The German charity Shanti Leprahilfe, which works for the rehabilitation of leprosy patients fell out with its Nepali partner at Shanti Sewa Griha over similar issues of management and fund use.

Nepali activists say naïve foreign volunteers and donors are also partly to blame.  “Foreigners are part of the problem,” says Martin Punaks* of Next Generation Nepal, which helps reintegrate rescued children with parents. “They need to vet Nepali partner organisations and monitor them for integrity more carefully.”

*CLARIFICATION: Next Generation Nepal's Martin Punaks' quote was related specifically to donors and volunteers that support orphanages in Nepal. NGN takes no position in the case the article discusses.


Additional reporting by Nabaraj Mahatara from Humla

Read the Nepali version here

Centre for Investigative Journalism

Click here to watch the trailer of Way of Life, documentary based on Michael Daube’s life

Read also:

Paper trail from Humla, Bhrikuti Rai**

Doctor who?, Bhrikuti Rai

Out on a limb, Tsering Dolker Gurung and Juanita Malagon

Supreme once more, Binita Dahal

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