Thai lawyer, judges sue US news outlet ‘Law360’ over Toyota bribery report

Photo: Toyota
Photo: Toyota

A Thai attorney and three former high-ranking judges suspected by U.S. authorities of taking bribes from Japanese automaker Toyota to throw out a massive tax judgment filed a defamation complaint yesterday against an American news site.

Songpol Annanon filed the complaint with Huai Khwang police against Law 360, a legal news website headquartered in New York, for reporting that the U.S. Justice Department was pursuing a corruption case against Toyota. It said authorities there suspected Songpol’s law firm of facilitating bribes amounting to tens of millions of dollars to some of Thailand’s top judges to overturn a THB11 billion tax evasion ruling against Toyota.

Law360 cited law enforcement documents indicating that Toyota itself concluded that the Annanon Law Office had helped “establish a backchannel to Thailand’s highest ranking judge” to pay upward of US$27 million (THB842 million) should Toyota prevail in its appeal. In 2015, judges overturned the ruling. It’s now before the Supreme Court.

Songpol, who said his firm was no longer involved in the case, said that Law360’s reporting was not only untrue but had damaged the reputation of his law office and the Thai justice system.

In his police complaint, Songpol also accused the legal news outlet of violating the Computer Crime Act provisions against “putting false data into a computer system.”

On the same day, former Supreme Court Justice Direk Inkhaninan and former senior appeals judge Chaisit Trachutham went to the Crime Suppression Division to file defamation complaints against the same American legal site after they were among three Thai judges accused of taking bribes.

While the courts and judges are legally insulated from virtually any form of criticism within the kingdom – it’s rare to see judges’ names even mentioned in the media – those same protections do not exist in the United States. A reputation harmed by facts is hardly a legal matter overseas, and defamation threats against foreign entities are often more performative than practical.

Maj. Gen. Suwat Sangnoom, division commander, said he would assign a subordinate, Maj. Gen. Pornpimol Dokmai, to interview Direk and Chaisit. 

The third judge, Slaiket Wattanapan, another former chief justice, said he also plans to file a complaint against the site. 

All three judges were named in the Law360 story by reporter Frank G. Runyeon. Runeyon wrote that the trio “may have funneled bribes” through Songpol’s law firm in an effort to “influence” the decision on Toyota’s appeal of the tax judgement. 

The original case decided against Toyota stemmed from Prius car parts imported into the country without paying duties.

Law360’s Wednesday story reported that American authorities had impaneled a grand jury in the case, signaling an escalation in their intent to prosecute. The US Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating the case.

The outlet previously reported in April that the Thai judiciary had said in a statement that it would “investigate and decisively punish such acts that bring disgrace to the honor of the judge, destroy the court’s neutrality, and make the society distrust the Thai justice system” should evidence be presented.

Read more Coconuts Bangkok stories here.

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