Auditor reviewing Bt21 million cost of charter flight to US security conference.
THE Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) is investigating controversy over Deputy Premier Prawit Wongsuwan’s trip to Hawaii last week to attend an international security meeting, Auditor-General Pisit Leelavachiropas told The Nation |yesterday.
The cost of the trip involving flights to and from Bangkok was Bt20.9 million, which critics described as too high.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday said he saw no need for his government to set up a committee to investigate the matter. He said he saw nothing irregular about the expenditure, as the trip was for the purposes of work, and not for pleasure.
“Don’t try to find faults in matters like this. Whoever wants to take legal action about this, let them do it,” Prayut told reporters at Government House.
But he said responsible state agencies were doing their duty by scrutinising this matter.
General Prawit, in his capacity as the defence minister, attended the informal meeting of defence ministers from the Asean plus the United States and other in the Asia Pacific regime in Honolulu at the invitation of US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter.
More than 30 Thai officials also went on the trip with the minister, which went from last Thursday till Sunday.
Auditor-General Pisit said yesterday the OAG was collecting facts from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and national carrier Thai Airways International to determine whether trip expenditure was “reasonable” and “productive” or not.
The agency will conclude the investigation by Friday, the auditor-general said.
“The OAG normally scrutinises the country’s budget expenses and this case is unexceptional,” Pisit said.
He said his agency would determine whether it was necessary to travel by a chartered flight, as the cost is substantially higher than a scheduled one.
Given it was a government trip, the officials involved had to fly with the national carrier Thai Airways. Pisit said in the event that THAI has no regular flights on certain routes, the government could use other carriers or book a chartered flight on THAI. However, he said, it depended on the importance of the mission.
“This trip was for a national security mission. We have to check if other similar missions need chartered flights as well or not.”
According to a source, the aircraft provided by the national carrier is a Boeing 747 with capacity more than 400 passengers. However, the delegation led by Prawit had only 38 officials.
Pisit said the aircraft used was suitable for the long-haul flight to Hawaii.
The round-trip flight cost over Bt500,000 for each person, divided by the number of passengers. However, the maximum market price for first class travel from Bangkok to Hawaii was about Bt200,000 per each.
Critics asked whether the price tag of Bt600,000 per person was reasonable for the flight, plus food and beverage on the chartered flight.
Pisit refused to comment on the appropriateness of the expenditure, given that more facts were required.
Meanwhile Prawit said there was no direct commercial flight from Bangkok to Hawaii, so he needed to take a chartered flight. Thai Airways was chosen because it was state-owned.
He said US authorities who hosted the meeting and wanted the Thai delegation to include experts from different areas, such as terrorism and transnational crimes, so the number of passengers was as many as 38.
“The information about the trip was disclosed on the Prime Minister’s Office website for transparency. The fund comes from taxpayers’ money so we need to have clear disclosure,” Prawit said.
He said that he thought the criticism on this matter was politically motivated.
Defence Ministry spokesman Maj-General Kongcheep Tantrawanit said the cost of the chartered flight was based on the median price requested by Thai Airways.
He said it was sensible to fly a chartered flight instead of a military flight by the Air Force. “The Air Force does not have the capability to fly on the route as the flight lasts as long as 19 hours and involves two refuelling stops. Thai Airways is more experienced in flying this route,” the spokesman said.
In May, PM Prayut and his team also took a chartered flight to Russia for the Asean-Russia Commemorative Summit. The flight cost Bt16 million, according to the PM’s Secretariat website.