SINGAPORE, March 12 — The Singapore doctor embroiled in the leak of confidential HIV patient data has lost his appeal in the High Court against an earlier conviction of helping his partner to cheat on a blood test, and of providing false information to the police and Ministry of Health (MOH).
Ler Teck Siang, 37, tried to argue yesterday that he had not been involved in the faking of the blood test, despite admissions by his partner Mikhy Farrera Brochez that the pair had both been in on the ruse from the start.
The couple made headlines most recently when MOH revealed that Brochez, 34, had leaked the records of thousands of HIV patients from an MOH registry — data he had gotten through Ler, who was previously the head of MOH’s National Public Health Unit.
The pair has been in trouble with the law for years now.
In 2008, Ler passed his own blood off as Brochez’s so that the latter would test negative for HIV. Brochez used the blood-test report to get an Employment Pass from the Manpower Ministry (MOM).
In High Court yesterday, Ler told Justice Chua Lee Ming that Brochez is a serial fraudster who lied about Ler’s involvement in the faking of the blood test.
There is “ample evidence to show that (Brochez) is a fraudster and had been defrauding not just local authorities but the appellant himself since day one”, Ler said, referring to himself.
“Most of what (Brochez) had said or written was unreliable, embellished and blatantly untrue (Brochez) would say or do things that defied logic, reason or was simply not factual,” he added.
Ler has been fighting his case without a lawyer since his former lawyer, Amarjit Singh Sidhu, was discharged at the eleventh hour at the start of his trial in 2017.
Ler also asserted that he had fabricated the earlier confessions he gave to the police about the faked blood test.
He said that he falsely confessed in 2016 to helping Brochez cheat on the blood test to help the police, so that they would have a “bargaining chip” against Brochez and dissuade him from disseminating the confidential HIV patient data.
But Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck told the court that full weight should be given to Ler’s police statements as they are replete with details that he could not have fabricated spontaneously.
He added that Ler’s “bargaining chip” theory is “completely not backed by evidence, and is contrived and far-fetched”.
“The idea that the police wanted Dr Ler to give them a bargaining chip, but did not even communicate this to him, beggars belief,” said Kwek.
“If Dr Ler truly believed that he was supposed to provide a bargaining chip, he could have confessed to any criminal offence in vague and general terms. He did not do this. Instead, he gave a very comprehensive account, replete with details, which closely match the documentary evidence.”
Ultimately, Justice Chua dismissed the appeal, calling Ler’s arguments “creative but baseless and, in part, illogical”.
Justice Chua noted that there was “clear corroborative evidence” between the statements he and Brochez had given.
He also remarked that he agreed with District Judge Luke Tan’s finding that Ler played an active role as “an instigator” in the faking of the blood test and was “not just accessory” to the ruse.
The HIV data leak
Yesterday’s session was Ler’s first court hearing since Brochez was named as the culprit who leaked the details of 14,200 people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and another 2,400 of their contacts in January.
Just last Monday, Brochez was ordered by a US court to “immediately” surrender to Singapore authorities the confidential data in his possession and “permanently delete” the data on any computer, device, storage media or website by March 29.
He is currently being held at the Fayette County Detention Centre in Lexington, Kentucky, as he faces charges related to stolen identification documents from Singapore.
These include two counts that were brought by US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation for threatening to extort the Singapore government and illegally transferring the identification of another person in connection with an unlawful activity.
Brochez was said to have gotten hold of the data through a thumb drive onto which Ler — who was head of MOH’s National Public Health Unit from March 2012 to May 2013 — had copied the said data.
For this, Ler is facing separate charges under the Official Secrets Act as he allegedly failed to “take reasonable care” of the information by “failing to retain possession” of the thumb drive containing the data between March 2012 and May 23, 2016.
Ler has two more drug-related charges pending, as he allegedly trafficked methamphetamine to another man in a hotel and was found in possession of a syringe, a drug-taking utensil.
He is contesting this set of charges as well, with the trial set to commence in May.
About the current case
Yesterday’s appeal dealt only with Ler’s initial proceeded charges for abetting Brochez to cheat on his blood test, and for giving false information the police and MOH.
The couple cracked the plan to falsify Brochez’s blood test results in March 2018, about a year after they got into a romantic relationship that began online, as they knew that foreigners with HIV are not allowed to work here.
Brochez had visited a clinic in Commonwealth where Ler was on duty as a locum general practitioner for a medical examination.
There, Ler who had drawn blood from his arm earlier in the day, labelled the test tube with Brochez’s particulars.
The duo repeated their ruse in November 2013 when Brochez applied to retain his personalised employment pass. A month later, Ler lied to an investigation manager from the MOH’s surveillance and enforcement branch in a bid to halt investigations into the forged blood test.
With the HIV-negative results, the MOM issued Brochez, who worked as a polytechnic lecturer here, with an employment pass for eight years till June 2016, when he was remanded in prison after the ruse came to light.
Brochez was subsequently jailed for 28 months over numerous fraud convictions — including using forged educational certificates — and drug-related offences, and was deported in May last year upon completing his sentence.
Ler was subsequently sentenced to 24 months in jail last September after being convicted of the current set of charges, of abetting Brochez to cheat and of providing false information to the police and MOH.
With yesterday’s ruling, Ler asked for his sentence to be deferred for three weeks so that he could settle some personal affairs, including relocating his pets, and prepare for his upcoming trial for his drug charges. A pre-trial conference for that trial is scheduled for Thursday.
Justice Chua allowed the sentence to be deferred for one-and-a-half weeks. Ler is to surrender to court to start serving his jail sentence by noon on March 21, a day after his elder brother’s birthday.
Ler remains out on a S$40,000 bail (RM120,000), which was posted by his 63-year-old mother, and has to wear an electronic tag and observe a curfew from 10pm to 6am as he is deemed a flight risk. — TODAY