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S'pore businessman wanted by FBI pleads guilty to falsifying invoices to hide dealings with North Korea

SINGAPORE – A Singaporean businessman, on the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) most-wanted list for laundering millions of dollars in funds for North Korea, pleaded guilty in a Singapore district court on Monday (Oct 11) to falsifying invoices.

Tan Wee Beng, 44, was convicted of seven counts of falsifying invoices to hide his business dealings with North Korea from two banks here.

Another 13 similar charges will be taken into consideration for sentencing.

Tan was the managing director and shareholder of Wee Tiong, a company that traded commodities.

He was also the director of Wee Tiong sister company Morgan Marcos. The shareholders of both companies were members of Tan’s family.

At the time of the offences in 2016 and 2017, Tan held bank accounts and credit facilities with UOB. As at November 2016, UOB granted $125 million in credit facilities to companies in the Wee Tiong group.

The court heard that Tan sold sugar to two North Koreans – Mr Ri Nam Sok and Mr Jon Chol Ho. He began trading with Ri in 2007 or 2008 and Jon in 2010.

Trade with North Korea was not illegal before Nov 8, 2017, said Tan’s lawyer, Ms Josephine Chee from law firm Rajah & Tann.

He received payment for the goods in the bank accounts of Wee Tiong and Morgan Marcos.

Between November 2016 and October 2017, Tan received questions from UOB and OCBC Bank about certain deposits in the accounts.

Tan knew the deposits were payments for goods sold to Mr Ri and Mr Jon and was concerned that the banks would terminate their relationship with the companies if they found out his dealings with North Koreans.

To hide this from the banks, Tan, together with shipping manager Bong Hui Ping, falsified invoices.

Bong changed the names of buyers and destination ports to remove any links to North Korea. Tan then signed and sent these invoices to UOB and OCBC.

Court documents did not state how his offences came to light.

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Seeking at least two months’ jail for Tan, Deputy Public Prosecutor Ryan Lim said: “It is difficult for banks to detect instances where false documents are provided… Any perverse incentive on the part of customers to do so must be obliterated by deterrent sentences.”

The prosecutor acknowledged, however, that no financial harm was caused to the banks due to the falsification of documents.

Ms Chee sought a high fine for her client instead, noting that Tan exported commodities such as soya bean, rice and sugar to North Korea for about 10 years but stopped after Singapore suspended trade ties with North Korea in November 2017.

For each count of falsifying invoices with intent to defraud, Tan can be jailed for up to 10 years and fined.

He is set to be sentenced next Wednesday.

Separately, Tan is on the FBI’s most wanted list for crimes including bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the US.

He had allegedly worked with several other unnamed actors to move money through the international banking system for North Korean banks between 2011 and 2018, violating international sanctions on North Korea.

A federal arrest warrant was issued for Tan in August 2018.

The Straits Times has contacted the authorities to ask whether the US has made an extradition request for Tan.

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