Senator Pimentel: Gov’t has no right to stop bank manager
The alleged laundering of $81 million through the Philippine financial system is a continuing crime, justifying the authorities’ decision to stop a Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) official from leaving the country on Friday, Sen. Sergio Osmeña III said on Saturday.
But Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, chair of the committee on justice, said there was no reason to restrict Maia Santos-Deguito’s fundamental right to travel unless there was a hold-departure order or a warrant for her arrest.
In Deguito’s case, there was none, Pimentel said.
Deguito, manager of the RCBC branch on Jupiter Street, Makati City, protested her removal from a Philippine Airlines flight to Tokyo on Friday, saying there was no court order barring her from traveling out of the country.
The $81 million, stolen by Chinese computer hackers from the account of Bangladesh’s central bank in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in early February, was remitted to five accounts at the RCBC Jupiter branch and allegedly layered through conversion into pesos, funneling into accounts at other banks and gaming in local casinos before being moved out of the country.
“It is a continuing crime because the money has not been recovered,” Osmeña, chair of the committee on banks, financial institutions and currencies, said in a phone interview.
Osmeña, who played an indirect role in the authorities’ decision to prevent Deguito from leaving the country, said he found the timing of her trip suspicious.
It came in the middle of the alleged money laundering at RCBC involving her branch, he said.
“I found her timing very strange. It’s hard to believe that she won’t run,” he said.
Deguito, her husband and their son were already aboard a Philippine Airlines flight to Tokyo on Friday afternoon when immigration authorities came aboard and removed them from the plane.
In a radio interview after the airport incident, Deguito said she was not fleeing but only traveling to Tokyo where she and her husband were to take their son to Disneyland as a birthday gift.
She said the immigration authorities carried no hold-departure order or arrest warrant, but showed her a paper stating that she was “part of the money-laundering scheme” being investigated by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).
The AMLC and the National Bureau of Investigation are looking into the alleged money laundering.
The Senate blue ribbon committee will open its own investigation on Tuesday.
Deguito is also under investigation by the RCBC management.
She has denied responsibility for the mess, saying the $81 million was only credited to her branch by the RCBC head office.
In a statement to the RCBC investigation, Deguito said she had received instructions from RCBC president and CEO Lorenzo Tan to allow the transfer of the amount into the accounts opened by five people at her branch last year.
Tan has denied knowledge of the operation, and offered to go on leave to the give the bank’s management a free hand in the investigation.
Tan, Deguito and William Go, a Chinese-Filipino businessman in whose account at RCBC Jupiter the five accounts holding the $81 million were consolidated, have been summoned to Tuesday’s Senate hearing.
Osmeña said it was better to prevent Deguito from leaving the Philippines in the interest of justice.
He also said there had been cases where suspects slipped out of the country in the middle of controversies and this “bad habit” had gotten in the way of the administration of justice.
“In order for justice to be done, we need the information, complete information [about what happened],” he said.
Right to travel
But Pimentel said a citizen’s right to travel must be respected despite the suspicious timing of the trip.
“We have to be strict about this because a fundamental civil right is involved, the right of movement. There must be a compelling reason to deny somebody the right to travel or move around,” said Pimentel, who is a lawyer.
He said the only basis for preventing Deguito from traveling was a hold-departure order or a warrant of arrest.
Pimentel said a watchlist or a lookout order from the Department of Justice (DOJ)—by its very name alone—could not be considered equivalent to a hold-departure order.
He said there had long been a debate about whether the DOJ could issue a hold-departure order, but he contended that this is a right reserved to the courts.
If Deguito is really involved in a crime, a case should have been filed against her immediately so that the state can seek her arrest and prevent her from moving around, Pimentel said.
Osmeña also said it was not he who had directly called up the DOJ to ask that Deguito be prevented from leaving.
He said a lawyer for RCBC called him up around 1:30 p.m. on Friday to relay the information that Deguito was about to fly out of the country.
After receiving the information, he said, he directed the blue ribbon committee to get permission from its chair, Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, to seek help from the DOJ to prevent Deguito from leaving.
PH measures working
Malacañang advised the public yesterday not to be alarmed at the widening investigation into the alleged use of the Philippine financial system for money laundering.
Instead of being alarmed, the public should feel reassured that the country’s measures against financial crimes are working, according to Presidential Communications Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III.
Speaking in a radio interview, Quezon said the AMLC and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas—the country’s central bank—were giving the public clarity on this case by investigating and reporting it to the press.
“I think the discovery of this and its investigation is proof positive that we are a responsible member of the global banking community,” Quezon said.
The Inquirer was the first to report the discovery of the Bangladesh Bank heist, tracing the operation from the breach of the Bangladeshi central bank’s systems to the transfer of funds from the bank’s account at the New York Fed and the remittance to RCBC during holidays in Bangladesh, the United States and the Philippines in early February to the “integration” of the money into the financial system through local casinos.
The casino part of the integration—the final step in money laundering—is doubtful, according to the Philippine gaming regulator.
Cristino Naguiat, chair and CEO of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., told the Inquirer last week that casinos are the riskiest place to launder dirty money, as the chances of losing at the tables are quite high. He said nobody had beaten the bank at local casinos.
Officials of Solaire Resort and Casino Manila, Midas Hotel and Casino and City of Dreams Casino—the three casinos mentioned in the AMLC investigation—have been summoned to Tuesday’s hearing at the Senate. With a report from Gil Cabacungan