Why would a company pay a $5-million bribe two years after getting a provisional license from Philippine regulators?
Lawmakers raised this question on Wednesday as they began investigating the bribery case allegedly involving Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada’s Universal Entertainment Corp. and former officials of Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).
Rep. Amado Bagatsing, chair of the House committee on games and amusement, pointed out that Okada’s Tiger Resort Leisure and Entertainment Inc. got its license to do business in Pagcor’s Entertainment City on Aug. 5, 2008—or two years before the alleged bribe money changed hands.
Then Pagcor consultant Rodolfo Soriano, tagged the bagman of then Pagcor chair Efraim Genuino, allegedly received the $5-million bribe, according to Reuters.
Reuters reported on Nov. 16 that the $5 million was part of the $40-million fund transfers by Universal’s Aruze USA in the first half of 2010 while Universal was seeking tax and ownership-related concessions in the final months of the Arroyo administration for its $2-billion casino on Manila Bay.
Reuters based its report on bank records, corporate filings, court documents and records prepared by Universal’s staff. US regulators are now investigating the payment to Soriano.
Genuino and Soriano were not present at the hearing, but Bagatsing was asked to summon them next time. But the committee chair said: “These people have reputations to protect also so give us reasons to really compel them to attend.”
Early into the two-hour hearing, Bagatsing asked: “Why still give $5 million when there’s already a license?” He noted that the alleged payoff took place shortly before new Pagcor officials were to take over.
“I don’t know if any businessman would do that, pay off an outgoing (official) and you already had a license for the last two years.”
But ACT Rep. Antonio Tinio said the bribery was “not improbable” despite the two-year gap.
“If it’s two years later, it could be because they didn’t want the (granting of license and payoff) to be linked,” Tinio told the Inquirer after the two-hour hearing.
What surprised many committee members was the revelation that Soriano received only “P1” in monthly compensation for his work as Pagcor consultant in 2006.
Soriano stayed only for two to three months, said Jay Daniel Santiago, Pagcor vice president for legal services.
“What were his duties, responsibilities? Perhaps he was just sweeping floors because he was getting only P1,” Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone asked current Pagcor officials in attendance.
Based on documents provided by Rep. Teodoro Casiño, Soriano made his money elsewhere.
Casiño was sick and failed to attend the hearing, but he furnished the committee copies of documents purportedly indicating how Soriano got the money from Universal.
On behalf of Casiño, Tinio tackled the registry document of Fortune Future Ltd., saying it “establishes the location of Future Fortune, the vehicle through which the $40-million (bribe) was passed from Universal to the Soriano firms.”
Reuters earlier reported that $40 million was moved from the account of Aruze USA, Universal’s subsidiary, through Future Fortune when Universal was seeking ownership-related concessions during the Arroyo administration in 2010.
Tinio presented another document in connection with People’s Technology Ltd., which was wholly owned by Soriano and was “the end recipient of $5 million from the $40 million transferred out of the Aruze USA accounts.”
“This also shows that the sole shareholder of the company is one Rodolfo Soriano since Nov. 17, 2009, meaning this Rodolfo Soriano has complete control over the company and the ability to access the company’s bank accounts and received the $5 million,” he told his colleagues.
Another document pertained to Subic Leisure and Management Ltd., the “receptacle” of the remaining $35 million, Tinio said.
“According to the sources of Congressman Casiño, Mr. Soriano allegedly controls this firm and that can be the subject of further investigation,” he said.
Still, Bagatsing had his doubts and asked: “Where is this leading to?”
Cases in Tokyo
Masahiro Terada, Tiger Resort general manager, attended the hearing and told lawmakers about two ongoing cases filed in Tokyo by Universal against its three former officials in connection with separate disbursements of $5 million and $10 million to purported Soriano firms.
“I want to see the link between this (case) and Entertainment City because that’s the allegation, that the money was used for bribery. So far, it’s still within the confines of your corporation, unless Mr. Tinio can expand on this, not by innuendo but by facts,” Bagatsing said.
Tinio replied that the lawsuit “acknowledges that there is already a transfer (of money).
“They’re only alleging that it was not authorized by the top management, but nevertheless, there was a transfer. So as far as our laws, our jurisdiction is concerned, that’s all we need to know,” he told Bagatsing.
Terada said the $5-million debit, which was purportedly a “guarantee fee,” was yet to be recovered.
He said $10 million was returned to Universal in the form of a check on the same day it was transferred to Subic Leisure in 2010.
“Nothing was lost in the $10 million, nothing was gained by anybody from the $10 million,” Bagatsing said. “Where does this lead to the allegation of bribery? It’s all within the context of the corporation, which is outside the Philippines.”
Evardone reminded Bagatsing that Terada had expressed “surprise” that the company got the $10 million back.
“The question now is how to connect Mr. Soriano to Genuino, to Pagcor, which granted the license to Tiger. But these transactions happened way after the granting of the permit. That’s why, if there was a transaction between Mr. Soriano and their group, at this point, we cannot make a conclusion. We cannot surmise any connection to Pagcor, especially in the granting of the permit. So far,” Evardone said.
Last week, Malacañang said Pagcor officials had referred the allegation of bribery to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for investigation.
President Aquino’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said the contract could be canceled if there was proof that the license was obtained through bribery.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago is seeking a probe of the $5-million bribe.
Besides Okada’s group, three others hold licenses to operate on a 120-hectare property reclaimed from Manila Bay—Belle Corp. of the SM Group, Bloombury Group of Enrique Razon and Travellers International Hotels.