Rogue Vietnam banker jailed for 30 years over $1 billion fraud

HANOI, June 9 Mon Jun 9, 2014 4:23am EDT

HANOI, June 9 (Reuters) - A Vietnamese court jailed a tycoon and former banker for 30 years on Monday for his part in a series of elaborate financial scams worth $1.1 billion that have become one of the country's most high-profile banking scandals.

Nguyen Duc Kien, 50, founder of Asia Commercial Bank , one of Vietnam's largest private lenders, was found guilty of a litany of crimes along with seven co-conspirators who used "sophisticated and cunning tricks" to deprive depositors and companies of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The defendants' activities manipulated the domestic financial and money markets, badly affecting the monetary and fiscal policies within the country," the court said in its verdict.

Vietnam's communist government says it is in the midst of a shake-up to strengthen its beleaguered banking and financial systems after a series of scandals that went undetected during boom growth of 2003-2007, when the sector saw seemingly unrestrained expansion.

Lax oversight and a spree of easy lending, much to state-run firms, has left Vietnam with high levels of non-performing loans that independent economists say could shackle growth for years without aggressive counter-measures.

Kien, once owner of former Vietnamese soccer league champions Hanoi ACB, was found to have illegally traded gold and stocks totalling 21.5 trillion dong ($1 billion) and of evading 25 billion dong in tax through his six investment companies.

The court said the defendants exploited loopholes and loose regulations by using fake documents and manipulating data on credit growth, profits and equities values.

TOUGH SENTENCE

Top local steel firm Hoa Phat Group was defrauded of 264 billion dong in shares due to the defendants' actions, the court said. ACB, 15.4 percent owned by Standard Chartered Bank, suffered losses of 1.4 trillion dong .

Former minister of planning and investment Tran Xuan Gia, ACB's chairman at the time of the scandal, was also indicted in the case, but his hearing has been suspended due to poor health. Gia, 75, is fatally ill, according to his lawyer.

The silver-haired Kien denied all allegations and requested more time to prove his innocence. The judges said Kien was given a tough sentence because he failed to tell the truth.

In his final statement a week ago, Kien alleged there were irregularities going on in many of Vietnam's lenders. He even gave detailed advice to the court about how to restructure the banking sector to prevent future embezzlement.

The ratio of bad debt in the Southeast Asian country is debated, with the State Bank of Vietnam, the central bank, putting last year's figure at 3.63 percent, compared with an estimate of about 15 percent by Moody's.

Vietnam has an asset management firm it says has bought 45.6 trillion dong in bad debt. It has been operating since July last year but has yet to announce a plan about what it would do with the toxic assets it has bought. ($1 = 21,185 dong) (Editing by Martin Petty)

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