2 extortion suspects fall into trap with P11 million from PAL
MANILA, Philippines — A former district collector of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) and an ex-consultant to Philippine Airlines (PAL) have been arrested for allegedly extorting P11 million from the flag carrier to import jet fuel.
The former BOC officer, lawyer John Tan, and Benjamin Sebastian, the former PAL consultant, were arrested by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation’s Anti-Organized and Transnational Crimes Division in a hotel in Manila where they received the money in an entrapment on Thursday.
According to a report by ABS-CBN, Sebastian allegedly made threats to the executive assistant of PAL chair Lucio Tan as early as January that the airline’s authority to release imported goods (ATRIG) would be blocked if they did not pay up.
The two men allegedly told the executive assistant, who was not identified in the report, that the P11 million would be used as “grease money” for officials of the BOC, Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), and the Office of Solicitor General so that PAL may be granted the ATRIG for its aviation fuel.
An ATRIG, which is issued by the BIR, is addressed to the commissioner of customs to allow the release of imported goods from the BOC upon the payment of taxes, or to serve as proof of exemption.
Just a ‘gift’
Both Sebastian and Tan underwent inquest proceedings at the Manila City prosecutor’s office on Friday. They were facing complaints of robbery-extortion and estafa.
A usurpation of authority complaint would also be filed against John Tan, who claimed he was still affiliated with the BOC despite his retirement in 2021.
In a TV Patrol report aired on Friday, Sebastian denied he was extorting money, claiming he was a “friend” and “employee” of the PAL chair, who “normally” gives him money as a “gift.”
“I am not guilty,” he said.
Tan, the former customs collector, denied being an accomplice, saying he was only invited by Sebastian for lunch at the hotel.
In a brief statement, PAL said it was “cooperating extensively” with the NBI.
“We wish to clarify, however, that we have not discovered any prior suspicious payments made by PAL to this individual (Sebastian), as alleged in the media report citing external counsel who assisted in the apprehension,” it added.
“We are cooperating extensively with the National Bureau of Investigation on the case related to the former PAL consultant who was apprehended on March 16 for an extortion attempt,” PAL said.
Reached for additional information on the case, PAL spokesperson Cielo Villaluna declined to provide other details.
“The case is undergoing inquest proceedings. We cannot make further comments,” Villaluna told the Inquirer on Saturday.
PAL, the oldest commercial carrier in Asia, marks its 82nd year of operation this year.
It is looking at having 75 aircraft in its fleet by the end of this year amid the projected growth in the number of passengers with the easing of pandemic restrictions. It currently has 68 planes.
The flag carrier recently reacquired one Airbus A330 that offers 18 seats in business class, plus 24 premium economy and 267 economy seats. The widebody jet is set to be deployed for routes to Hawaii, Australia and several Asian destinations.
PAL will also increase the number of flights to various destinations in the coming months, including Beijing, China.
Flights to popular Asian destinations were reopened in January following the easing of border restrictions.
—REPORTS FROM DEXTER CABALZA AND TYRONE JASPER C. PIAD
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