Fullerton Man's Suit Too Late : Viet Refugee Loses Claim for Back Rent From Army

Times Staff Writer

Thirteen years ago, Tran Hung Ngu leased his warehouse in South Vietnam to the U.S. Army. After the war, he spent four years in a North Vietnamese prison camp for collaborating with the Americans. Then, in 1984, the U.S. General Accounting Office told Ngu he had waited too long to file a claim for back rent owed by the Army.

On Wednesday, a judge ruled that Ngu, who now lives in Fullerton, should have been paid then but can't collect a penny now.

Kenneth Harkins, U.S. Claims Court judge in Washington, dismissed Ngu's seven-month-old lawsuit for $63,984 in back rent and nearly $90,000 in interest. Because of a combination of slow government action and an expired statute of limitations, Harkins said the court could no longer force the agency to pay even though the GAO was at fault.

"I'm tired of waiting for it," Ngu, 59, said Wednesday of the money he has sought to collect from the Army. With his 13-year-old daughter acting as interpreter, Ngu said in a telephone interview that he is sorry he leased the warehouse.

"I regret it . . . because I've gone through many miserable things" as a result, he said.

In 1972, during the Vietnam War, Ngu leased to the Army's Defense Attache Office a warehouse he owned outside Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Ngu was director of logistics in South Vietnam's Food Administration Department.

When Saigon fell in 1975, Ngu was arrested by the North Vietnamese--not for having been an administrator in the South Vietnamese government, but for having collaborated with the American war effort.

After four years in a re-education camp, Ngu escaped, joined his wife and two children and fled Vietnam aboard a fishing boat.

The boat sank, Ngu said, and some passengers drowned, but he and his family were rescued by a German ship. He received medical care in Germany for eye, liver, pancreas and intestinal problems he said he developed during his four years in the prison camp. He and his family then came to Orange County, where his son from a previous marriage was living.

Within a year, Ngu sent a claim for $63,984 to the Department of the Army. The claim was for the period from July, 1974, until April, 1975. The Army acknowledged his claim with a letter dated Dec. 16, 1980, according to Ngu's attorney, Clifford Barry. Barry added that both the Army and GAO continued sending him assurances that they were examining his claim.

In a June 28, 1984, letter, the GAO told Ngu that his claim was being rejected because a six-year statute of limitations on such matters had expired before Ngu filed it. Six years had passed since Ngu first was owed payments, in July, 1974.

Judge Harkins ruled Wednesday that the GAO's decision was wrong, but he also ruled that Ngu had waited too long to follow up with a civil suit against the GAO. Plaintiffs have three years to file a lawsuit against the government after returning to, or arriving in the United States. By the time the GAO told Ngu, in 1984, that his claim had been denied, he had been in the United States more than four years, Barry said.

Until June, 1983, Ngu could have sued the government "and they would have been happy to pay," Barry said.

Lawyers for the Justice Department, which represented the GAO, were unavailable to comment on Ngu's case.

Barry said he was frustrated by Harkins' ruling but believed it was essentially correct. Ngu waited past the deadline before he began legal action because of erroneous assurances from the Army that no statute of limitations would apply after his claim had been received, Barry said.

"If he had known the government was lying to him, he (would) have filed a lawsuit," he said.

Barry said he would appeal the decision, but that "chances of success are very limited." As a last recourse, he also plans to contact area congressmen about sponsoring special legislation to pay Ngu his due.

Ngu said he hopes this latter method bears fruit. "There are always strong feelings when you can't get your money back," he said. "But I remain an optimist."

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