Acsa moves on but tax case is stuckBy Lawrence de Guzman
Almost 10 years after she was mistakenly tagged as part of the P432-million tax scam she herself had exposed, whistle-blower Acsa Ramirez has returned to a normal life—far from the turbulent months she faced after the blunder shoved her into an exhausting fight to clear her name.
“I have moved on,” Ramirez said in an interview with the Inquirer on July 6. “I have done my part and it’s the government’s turn to do its job.”
The largest tax diversion case in the country is still on its pretrial stage, three years after state prosecutors filed in August 2009 money laundering and estafa charges against 25 people in relation to the scam.
Ramirez said she would not have endured the test alone. “If not for my faith in God and the support of my Land Bank family, I would have snapped, so I’m just very grateful to them.”
Ramirez also said she owed a lot to the media, which was relentless in following up on her case until its closure. She recalled that she was moved to tears many times after reading columnists expressing support for her.
Embracing a life out of the limelight, she said she chose to forget memories of those trying times.
“I don’t actually want to remember what I went through,” Ramirez revealed. “It was enough that I was able to help the country by doing my job,” she said.
Ramirez was working as an assistant cashier at the Binangonan, Rizal branch of the state-run Land Bank of the Philippines when she discovered that P203 million in tax payments of seven big companies had been diverted to four accounts at their branch. Another P229 million in tax payments were later discovered, bringing the total amount to P432 million.
She reported the matter to Land Bank officials, who, after carrying out an internal investigation, determined that branch manager Artemio San Juan was a key player in the scam.
On Aug. 1, 2002, San Juan was presented to the press, along with other suspects, in line with the Arroyo administration’s campaign to shame criminals.
The following day, Ramirez went to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headquarters for an “interview.” She was then summoned where the President was meeting the media.
At the press conference, Ramirez got the shock of her life when she was presented by then NBI Director Reynaldo Wycoco and Ms Arroyo as a suspect in the case. She blacked out and burst into tears.
Apology from Gloria Arroyo
Ramirez expected an apology to clear her name, but the NBI denied committing any mistake while Malacañang kept mum on the issue. Firm in his position, Wycoco said Ramirez had now become the subject of an investigation for failing to reveal other transactions. The President also stood her ground even after Land Bank officials themselves cleared Ramirez of any wrongdoing.
Ramirez was subsequently charged, along with her predecessor Ramon Joven, and branch manager San Juan, of failure to disclose to the Anti-Money Laundering Council transactions involving four suspicious accounts.
On Feb. 13, 2003, Ramirez was vindicated when the Office of the Ombudsman absolved her on the grounds that she performed acts of disclosure that “complied with the provisions of the Anti-Money Laundering Act.”
Unyielding, the NBI filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied by the Office of the Ombudsman in August of the same year, once again clearing Ramirez’s name.
On Aug. 29, 2003, Ms Arroyo finally apologized to Ramirez.
“In behalf of the Republic and the Filipino people, I wish to convey my deepest apologies for the inconvenience we have caused you,” the President told her in Malacañang.
The turn of events left Wycoco with no choice but to abandon the case to “bring down the very high emotional temperature in the country.” “We like to bring this case to a nice closure. We know you’ve suffered emotionally,” Wycoco told Ramirez in the same event.
“Maraming salamat, sir. Hindi niyo alam ang pinagdaanan ko. (Thank you, sir. You don’t know what I had been through),” replied Ramirez in tears.
Living under guard
A lot has changed in the life of Ramirez since she exposed the scam.
For one, she and her husband had to live under guard in a safe house and leave their young children under the care of a relative. The couple also had to anxiously look behind their shoulders whenever they went out for fear that the syndicate might get back at them.
But the scourge of an erroneous presentation of her as a criminal proved to be too much of a burden for an honest worker. Weeks before the “closure” between her and the Palace took place, Ramirez also suffered a miscarriage upon learning that the NBI was still pursuing the case against her.
It reached a point when Ramirez’s lawyer, Virginia Pinlac, denounced the NBI for focusing its efforts on pinning down Ramirez instead of aiding the investigation into the tax scam itself.
In fact, it was only six years after Ramirez was cleared of any wrongdoing that state prosecutors were able to file money laundering and estafa charges against certain Land Bank officials in Binangonan, Rizal, employees of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and workers of private firms in relation to the tax scam.
Charged were Land Bank officials San Juan, Catalina Villegas, Allan Diaz and Rival Lazanas; BIR officers Zenaida S. Marciales, Gina O. Villasoto, Eleanor N. Litao, Bernadette Ongsoto, David Agpalo, Zenaida A. Almirez, Pablito C. Berena and Esther Mendoza.
Also named in the charge sheet were Ronilo T. Yu, Teodorico DJ Rivera, Resty Rivera and one John Doe of Lorenzo Shipping Corp.; Henry Marquez and Gemma V. Mariano of GMA Marketing; Orlando Fetil of Sumisetsu Philippines Inc.; Flordel Foronda of Prumerica; Loreto Castillo; Marcelino L. Saludo; Susana Villegas; Jeffrey Torres; and Rodrigo G. Bautista Jr.
At least three have been arraigned: Villegas, Diaz and Castillo. They have posted a P60,000 to P120,000 bail bond for their provisional liberty.
In May 2011, Judge Ma. Conchita Lucera-De Mesa of Regional Trial Court Branch 70 cleared all BIR employees of the money laundering charges for lack of probable cause.
On the other hand, the next hearing for the case has yet to be scheduled, owing to the reshuffling of state prosecutors.
How scam worked
According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the scam started with the opening of accounts under fictitious names at the Land Bank branch.
When the syndicate got hold of the checks issued by big-time taxpayers through messenger-clerks, the group copied the amounts on dummy checks that were deposited in the fictitious bank accounts with the account holder as payee.
The DOJ added that to avoid detection, the syndicate forged official receipts which were issued to the taxpayers. Their tax returns were also stamped with fake validation marks to make it appear that they had been filed with the BIR.
When the dummy checks went to the clearing house, the clearing assistant—another member of the syndicate—switched the real checks issued by the taxpayer with the syndicate’s dummy checks. The real checks then ended up in the clearing house with the tax payments being credited to the holders of the fictitious bank accounts.
Big-time taxpayers victims
Among the big-time taxpayers who were victimized were Lorenzo Shipping Corp., Nissan Motors Inc., Honda Philippines Inc., Pilipinas Makro, Matsushita Commercial Industrial Corp., Prumerica, Sumisetsu Philippines Inc., Dow Chemicals Philippines and GMA Marketing Corp.