SPH Sacks Senior Executive (ST)

BackSep 17, 2010

A SENIOR executive with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) has been sacked after admitting that he received illegal payments and misappropriated shopping vouchers.

Mr Peter Khoo Chong Meng, 47, who spent 22 years at The Straits Times, first as a sports journalist and then as its chief of branding and promotions, was a senior vice-president in the English and Malay Newspapers Division (EMND).

He came forward early this week and told his editors what he had done. He has also repaid $196,500.

A police report has been made and investigations are ongoing, the company said last night.

The news shocked everyone who knew Mr Khoo as the public face of The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (STPMF), the newspaper's 10-year-old charity which provides financial assistance to disadvantaged children. He was its organising chairman.

In its statement, SPH said: 'To the best of the company's knowledge, none of the donations made to the STPMF has been misappropriated.'

It was in his job as head of EMND's Editorial Projects Unit that Mr Khoo handled The Straits Times' branding and promotion activities, which included circulation drives, student events and rewards for readers who send news tip-offs.

His team of seven also coordinated events and activities to raise donations for the newspaper's charity.

Mr Khoo admitted taking shopping vouchers meant for branding and promotion activities, as well as unspecified illegal payments.

SPH did not provide details, but typically, the vouchers given out at ST promotions include some given by sponsors, as well as others bought by Mr Khoo's unit from department stores and shops.

For some years now, listed property firm CapitaLand has sponsored shopping vouchers used to reward readers who call the paper's Newsline with news tips.

It was learnt last night that CapitaLand vouchers were mentioned in the police report. SPH also did not elaborate on the illegal payments Mr Khoo admitted receiving. But it is known that for some of its activities, his unit has engaged external vendors to provide souvenirs, gifts, T-shirts and various items placed in goodie bags given to participants.

When asked, SPH declined to say how long he had managed to keep his illegal activities under wraps, or whether they would have come to light if he had not confessed.

His confession came as SPH's internal audit unit was reviewing expenditure in various departments within the newspaper recently.

The company also declined to say if lax processes were to blame for his illegal activities going undetected.

But the company's chief executive officer (CEO), Mr Alan Chan, said: 'SPH takes a serious view of the matter. We are reviewing our internal processes and will do whatever is necessary to tighten our procedures in all aspects, including that of the pocket money fund.

'Our external auditors have also been informed.'

It was revealed yesterday that Mr Khoo sent text messages last Sunday morning to EMND editor-in-chief Patrick Daniel and ST editor Han Fook Kwang, asking to see them in person. He met Mr Han that afternoon and spilled the beans. He was then instructed to provide a written statement, and did so on Monday.

A police report was made on Tuesday. Investigations into possible criminal breach of trust offences are now ongoing.

At his Simei home last night, Mr Khoo was seen pacing inside, but he refused to take reporters' questions.

Married with one son, he issued a brief statement saying his lawyers had advised him not to comment.

Mr Han was unable to shed more light on what Mr Khoo took, saying the investigation was under way.

But, like many at The Straits Times, he was concerned about a negative impact on the school pocket money fund.

'This is a big setback for us,' he said. 'While we do not believe the STPMF was involved, I would like to assure our many donors and supporters that it is our top priority to maintain the integrity of The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.

'The editors and journalists of The Straits Times want to continue our efforts to help needy children.'

With immediate effect, Ms Bertha Henson, an associate editor of The Straits Times, will replace Mr Khoo as the fund's organising committee chief as well as head of his unit.

From early on, The Straits Times has turned to the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) to help administer the fund. So while Mr Khoo's unit raised awareness, organised fund-raisers and liaised with donors, all donations were forwarded to the NCSS to disburse.

The bulk of donations arrive by cheque. Although cash makes up only a small proportion of donations, SPH was unable to confirm the exact amount.

Asked to comment if Mr Khoo's dismissal might have an impact on the fund, the NCSS declined, citing the ongoing investigations. But its CEO, Ms Ang Bee Lian, said: 'NCSS has in place administrative and audit processes, including the engagement of external auditors, to ensure that the STPMF has been appropriately disbursed to voluntary welfare organisations for the clients.'

Asked to assess the impact on The Straits Times, Mr Han said: 'The ST brand name shouldn't be affected. It's an incident in which someone was dishonest, he misappropriated money. It's a very unfortunate setback for our company, any company.

'But I don't think our reputation as a newspaper ought to be affected at all.'

Despite the news about Mr Khoo, the pocket money fund received a vote of confidence last night from donor OCBC Bank. Its head of group corporate communications, Ms Koh Ching Ching, said: 'We're surprised by the latest development. However, we'll continue to support the cause of the fund - needy children.'