Singaporean wanted by FBI fined S$210,000 for editing invoices to hide sugar sales to North Korea

Tan Wee Beng, 44, was afraid that two banks here would terminate their relationship with his firm over legal transactions with North Korea and decided to falsify seven invoices to conceal them. ― TODAY pic
Tan Wee Beng, 44, was afraid that two banks here would terminate their relationship with his firm over legal transactions with North Korea and decided to falsify seven invoices to conceal them. ― TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Oct 20 — A Singaporean man, who is on the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) most wanted list for evading US sanctions against North Korea, was fined S$210,000 (RM649,430) today (October 20) in a district court here.

Tan Wee Beng, who owned a commodities business, had business dealings with North Korean entities before Singapore suspended all commercial trade ties with the reclusive city-state in November 2017.

Despite those trades being legal, Tan was afraid that two banks here would terminate their relationship with his firm over these transactions and decided to falsify seven invoices to conceal them. 

The 44-year-old pleaded guilty last week to seven charges of falsifying invoices from his firm, Wee Tiong (S), and sister company Morgan Marcos. Another 13 similar charges were taken into consideration for sentencing.

Tan was the managing director of Wee Tiong and also ran Morgan Marcos with family members holding all shareholder positions. 

The court heard that he sold sugar and other goods to two North Korean individuals — identified as Ri Nam Sok and Jon Chol Ho — through their respective companies, starting from 2007 to 2010.

He then received queries from United Overseas Bank (UOB) in November 2016, March 2017 and October 2017 concerning certain multiple deposits into his companies’ bank accounts.

The two North Koreans’ firms had paid for the goods by depositing money into Tan’s companies’ UOB account.

As of November 2016, UOB had granted credit facilities of about S$215 million to the Wee Tiong group.

Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation also queried Tan about some deposits, as his companies maintained bank accounts with them as well. 

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Ryan Lim previously told the court that if Wee Tiong had told the banks about the deposits being related to North Korean entities, they likely would not have continued their banking relationship with the company.

A shipping manager at Wee Tiong — Bong Hui Ping, a 39-year-old Malaysian — helped Tan to prepare the false invoices. 

Bong changed the names of the end buyers, and in some cases also the destination ports, on the invoices to remove any references to the North Korean companies and ports. To identify these false invoices, she usually added an “A” to the end of the original invoice number.

Tan then signed the documents and sent them to the banks in response to their questions.

Tan ‘reacted and made this mistake’

DPP Lim sought at least two months’ jail, saying that it was difficult for banks to detect such fraud and that a strong signal should be sent to others that providing false information to banks will not be tolerated.

“If a fine is imposed, the concern is it may simply be reframed as a price to be paid by like-minded offenders,” the prosecutor added.

Tan’s lawyers from Rajah & Tann argued for a high fine, saying their client had committed his offences after having concerns that the banks’ queries were related to increasing political tension with North Korea due to its nuclear tests.

The banks did not suffer financial harm or loss, Tan did not mean to cover up any wrongdoing, and he had not done it for personal gain, the lawyers added.

Tan could have explained away the legitimate transactions if he honestly acknowledged them, but he “reacted and made this mistake”, they told District Judge Eddy Tham.

In sentencing, the judge said that financial institutions carry out a “very important role” and that there was clearly personal gain for Tan, to avert a possible financial impact on his companies.

Nevertheless, District Judge Tham said a hefty maximum fine of S$30,000 per charge that Tan pleaded guilty to would be sufficient to send a deterrent message.

If Tan cannot pay the fine, he has to serve seven months in jail.

For each charge of falsifying papers with intent to defraud, he could have been jailed up to 10 years or fined, or both.

According to the FBI’s page on him, he was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 2018 “for allegedly conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) by doing business with North Korean proliferation entities”.

Tan and others in his company had “allegedly fulfilled millions of dollars in commodities contracts for North Korea” as far back as 2011.

A US court issued a federal arrest warrant for him in 2018 on charges of bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to violate the IEEPA.

New York prosecutors accused him of conspiring to use the US financial system to finance shipments of goods to North Korea.

Wee Tiong was founded in 1993 by Tan’s father and generated an annual revenue of US$400 million (S$557 million), according to its website. ― TODAY 

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