Case Summaries

Public Prosecutor v Syed Mostofa Romel

28 April 2015

Media Summary

Public Prosecutor v Syed Mostofa Romel
Magistrate's Appeal No 9019 of 2015

Background

1        In Public Prosecutor v Syed Mostofa Romel [2015] SGHC 117, Chief Justice
Sundaresh Menon set out guidelines that will shape and inform the
sentencing of persons convicted of corruption as agents under s 6 of the
Prevention of Corruption Act (Cap 241, 1993 Rev Ed) (“the PCA”).

The facts

2        The offender, Syed Mostofa Romel (“Romel”), was employed by a company in the business of marine surveying. Romel’s duties included conducting safety inspections and producing inspection reports on the condition of vessels seeking to enter an oil terminal. If a vessel presented with high-risk defects, the defects would have to be rectified before the vessel was permitted entry. If the vessel presented with low to medium-risk defects, it would be permitted to enter the oil terminal where rectification works could there be carried out.

3        Romel faced three charges of corruption under s 6 of the PCA. The first related to an incident in March 2014. After conducting a safety inspection for the vessel the MT Torero, Romel informed the master of the vessel, Mr Vladimir Momotov (“Mr Momotov”), that there were high-risk defects which would likely result in the vessel being denied entry into the oil terminal. Mr Momotov thought that the defects were only minor and should not even be raised in the inspection report. Romel informed Mr Momotov that the situation could be resolved if he paid Romel some money. Romel was paid the agreed sum of US$3,000, and in return, Romel omitted to mention any high-risk defects in the inspection report. Unbeknown to Romel, Mr Momotov reported the incident to the authorities.

4        The second charge related to an incident when the same vessel, MT Torero, arrived at the oil terminal in May 2014. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau launched a sting operation and prepared the vessel with high-risk defects. Romel was assigned to conduct the safety inspection. After the inspection, Romel drew the high-risk defects to Mr Momotov’s attention. When Romel was asked how the problem could be resolved, Romel reminded the Mr Momotov of the previous occasion and asked Mr Momotov to do the same once more. Romel was paid US$3,000, and in turn, Romel omitted to mention the high-risk defects in the inspection report.

5        The third charge related to an incident in March 2014 concerning a different vessel, but where US$1,200 was extracted by Romel from the master of that vessel under similar circumstances.

6        The Public Prosecutor (“the Prosecution”) proceeded with the first two charges against Romel. Romel pleaded guilty. The district judge sentenced Romel to two months’ imprisonment on each charge, with both sentences to run concurrently. The Prosecution appealed against the district judge’s decision on the ground that it was manifestly inadequate. The appeal was heard by Sundaresh Menon CJ, who allowed the appeal and increased Romel’s sentence to six months’ imprisonment on each charge, with both sentences to run concurrently.

The decision

7        Menon CJ observed that corruption in the public sector typically attracted custodial sentences. But he rejected an argument put forth by Romel that private sector corruption typically only attracted a fine. Menon CJ stated that the manner in which the government operated was changing, and there was a need for clean and transparent dealings even in the private sector. He observed that modern day governments have increased the outsourcing and privatisation of public services, but that this did not detract from the fact that public services were involved. The ability for private actors to influence the public interest had increased and there was a corresponding need to ensure that private actors were held accountable for the public services they are responsible for.

8        Fines were recognised to be appropriate in certain cases, but that did not support a presumption in favour of non-custodial sentences for corruption in the private sector. Instead, the specific nature of the corruption concerned was crucial. Menon CJ thought that much of the prevailing case law on corruption fell into three broad and non-exhaustive categories. First, where the recipient was paid to confer a benefit, which was in his power to confer, on the payer. This typically was done at the payer’s behest. Second, where the
recipient was paid to forbear from performing an act he was duty bound to do. As a consequence, the payer obtained a benefit by avoiding prejudice which would otherwise have been occasioned by the recipient properly discharging his duty. This was also typically done at the payer’s behest. The third category was where the recipient threatened to inflict harm on the payer, which the recipient had no lawful basis for inflicting, unless the payer paid a bribe. In this third category, the payment of the bribe was usually done at the recipient’s behest.

9        Menon CJ held that in the first category, whether a custodial sentence would be imposed would depend on the facts of the case. In the second category, a custodial sentence would generally be imposed. The third category would also generally result in a custodial sentence. The third category of corruption was described as:

[A] kind of corruption is antithetical to everything that Singapore stands for as it undermines the confidence that if a person needs something such as a permit or licence to do business in Singapore, it will be forthcoming without bribes being paid. It also destroys the notion that business in Singapore is clean and transparent and that rules are there for good reason rather than to give people in whom discretion is vested or upon whom duties are placed, opportunities to have their palms greased and their pockets lined. In such cases all would-be offenders must be warned that such acts, which undermine legitimate rights will not be tolerated and will be severely dealt with.

10        The three categories, however, were only analytical tools which served as a reminder that sentencing, especially in the context of corruption, was an intensely factual exercise. On the facts, the first charge was found to fall squarely within the third category. The second charge, however, associated with both the second and third categories. It associated with the second category because Romel forbore to perform an act that he was duty bound to perform. It associated with the third because the payment was solicited by
Romel, with a view to then breaching his duty in return for such payment.

11        A sentence of six months’ imprisonment was thought to be appropriate based on four factors. First, the offending acts were carried out over a period of three months and involved a sum of US$7,200. Second, the maritime industry was a strategic one for Singapore, and therefore, the potential loss of confidence in the industry was an aggravating factor. Third, Romel’s offences compromised the safety of the oil terminal as well as that of the workers at the terminal. Fourth, Romel’s acts were premeditated and deliberate.

12        Menon CJ concluded with a reminder that the form of corruption engaged in in the present case undermined the collective efforts of our society and could not be allowed to proliferate. He said that:

[T]his type of corruption goes against some of the core values that we as a nation and a people stand for and it undermines the collective effort of our society to institutionalise a zero-tolerance culture towards corruption. It has been noted in a study that a 1% increase in corruption levels reduces the growth rate by about 0.72% ... This has severe consequences for a country like ours that must compete globally for investments. Clean and honest dealing is one of our key competitive advantages ... and corruption compromises the predictability and openness which Singapore offers and investors have come to expect. This is a hard won prize achieved through our collective efforts as a society and we must not allow these to be undone.

This summary is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court.

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