Cambodia grants citizenship to an alleged child sex tourist

Erik Wasson and Prak Chan Thul

Cambodia has apparently granted Khmer citizenship to a wealthy American accused of being one of the world's most notorious child abusers, a former San Francisco Bay Area stockbroker currently in a Mexican prison on charges of child sexual abuse, raising US Justice Department fears that the man will flee to Phnom Penh, according to government documents.

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The Cambodian government has lately made much of an increase in the arrest of suspects in child-sex tourism. Nonetheless, on May 8, Thomas Frank White of San Francisco, born Feb 14, 1936, officially became a Cambodian, according to a copy of Royal Decree 0506/220, with the help of the US law firm of Tamburello & Hanlon.

A Thomas Frank White, with the same birthday, also from San Francisco and also represented by Tamburello & Hanlon is currently in a Mexican prison facing accusations of sexually abusing 14 minors, according to media reports and a lawyer representing his alleged victims in the US. A photo of White in his Cambodian citizenship application appears to match one of the man in the Mexican prison printed in The San Francisco Chronicle.

According to a copy of a US District Court indictment dated March 23, 2004, Thomas Frank White has been indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to travel to a country with intent to engage in sexual acts with minors. He is also facing the charge of conspiracy to sexually exploit children.

The charges refer to crimes allegedly committed both in Mexico and in Thailand, where White resided from October 2000 to February 2003. In August 2005, White settled a $7 million lawsuit brought by two of his alleged underage victims, media reports state.

When arrested in Thailand on Feb 14, 2003, his 68th birthday, White was living with six underage boys, Thai police told the Associated Press. He was jailed in Thailand for close to two years before being extradited to Mexico to face charges. Although he has no US criminal record, US federal prosecutors are negotiating to have White extradited to the US to face the charges there.

According to AP, White founded Thomas White and Co, a brokerage house in 1978 and had been revered in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for helping street children and building an orphanage and school called Casa Blanca, or "white house."

White, through his attorneys, has denied all the charges. The Cambodian government dossier on White states that he meets all the requirements for citizenship. However, a careful examination of the claims in the dossier reveals significant holes.

In the file, Dr. Veng Thai of the Phnom Penh Municipal Health Department certifies that he examined White on Dec 26, 2005 and certified that White is not HIV positive. He could respond and listen in Khmer. However, Veng Thai said in an interview that he remembers examining White but does not remember any details about him.

Two days after that, when reporters showed Veng Thai a photo of the Thomas Frank White who was in a Mexican prison last December, Veng Thai said that he could not remember administering the HIV quick test he has given other citizenship applicants.

He also said that there was no file on White in his office, before abruptly leaving the interview.

The address given in the dossier for White is 9 E0 Sisowath Street in Daun Penh district of Phnom Penh at the time of his application in June 2005. The address turns out to be a Khmer-owned motorcycle repair shop, where the employees said they had never heard of Thomas Frank White.

If, as appears to be the case, White the Cambodian is also the White in Mexican prison, his lawyer may have used legal sleight of hand to convince the government White is of good character.

To meet the requirement of having no criminal record, the law firm of Tamburello & Hanlon furnished the Cambodian government in June 2005 with a letter from the US State of California. The letter is signed by Robert Santos, Assistant Manager, Bureau of Criminal Identification, Department of Justice, State of California. A police certificate showing he has no criminal record in Cambodia is also attached.

A letter from the California state penal system, however, would not cover the 2004 charges in US federal court or those in Mexico. But a simple search on the Internet could have easily raised red flags about Thomas Frank White, revealing the history of the man in a Mexican jail.

Cambodia's 1996 Nationality Law specifies that to obtain citizenship a foreigner must show he currently resides in Cambodia, has resided here for 7 years continuously, speaks and reads Khmer, is in sound physical and mental health, has no criminal convictions and has a letter certifying to good moral conduct from his local neighborhood in Cambodia.

Those investing 1.25 billion riel here can obtain citizenship without living here for 7 years. Donors contributing more than 1 billion riels to the state budget need neither reside here nor have stayed for 7 years.

According to the documents, White is listed as an accountant with an NGO called the Khmer Fund for Law and Democracy. The NGO is registered at 9 E0 Sisowath Street where the motorbike shop is located, and where no employees have heard of it.

Toy Monireath of the Cooperation Center for Cambodia, which tracks NGO activity, said that there is no record of a Khmer Fund for Law and Democracy or a Cambodian Fund for Law and Democracy.

An assistant to Council of Ministers Secretary of State Nady Tan, confirmed that her boss signed the citizenship decree. Later, Nady Tan said that he did not know anything about why White was given citizenship.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's senior adviser Om Yentieng declined to comment on whether White may have bought his new Cambodian citizenship.

"I welcome your information and I will report this information to the authorities," he said.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith also said he would investigate the case. He did not respond to questions about whether Cambodia should do more to screen citizenship applications.

David Replogle, the San Francisco lawyer who represents more than 20 alleged victims of White, said that he suspects White would try to flee to Cambodia.

"I had heard that he was going to try and get out of jail in Mexico and then flee either to Thailand or Cambodia," he said. "The Thai government refused his citizenship request. I guess his money went farther in Cambodia."

In an email, US federal prosecutor Susan Jerich wrote that "we have always known [White] would try to circumvent, by any means necessary ($$$$)coming back here," she wrote. "If he is able to bail from Mexico-we have 1 idea as to where he will be. What a paradise for him," she wrote.

The US Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on Thomas Frank White, citing US privacy laws. Spokesman Jeff Daigle noted that there is no extradition treaty between Cambodia and the US, but changing nationality would not allow anyone to avoid federal charges.

Nanci Clarence, the attorney for White at the time of his arrest in Thailand, wrote in an email that he is now represented by Stuart Hanlon, a California attorney working at Tamburello & Hanlon.

Hanlon left Tamburello & Hanlon recently but the firm provided a forwarding telephone number. A detailed voice message left for Hanlon, asking whether any bribes were paid to obtain Cambodian citizenship was not responded to. Faxed questions sent to the firm of Tamburello & Hanlon were not answered. No fax or email information for Hanlon's new firm was available.

Rodney Hatfield, the country representative for UNICEF, said that evidence that Cambodia has given a passport to an indicted sex tourist should be shared with the government. "I would imagine that if he is now in prison, is facing 14 child abuse charges and is being pursued by US Federal prosecutors on other charges, he is unlikely to find his way to Cambodia anytime soon," he wrote in an email. "The Cambodian Government is trying to prevent pedophiles from visiting the country and is increasingly prosecuting anyone sexually exploiting children."

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