Conflicting testimonies noted
BUSINESSMAN Kim Wong, former Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) branch manager Maia Santos-Deguito and Philrem Services Corp. officials on Tuesday offered conflicting testimonies on how the stolen $81 million was laundered.
At the resumption of the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing, Philrem officials were taken to task for purported inconsistences and omissions in their statements on the delivery to a casino junket operator of the money stolen from the US account of Bangladesh Bank that ended up in Deguito’s RCBC branch.
Senators said Philrem executives led by president Salud Bautista and her husband, treasurer Michael Bautista, had failed to mention at the outset that Kim Wong was present during the delivery of portions of the P600 million and $18 million that they said went to junket operator Weikang Xu.
The Bautistas’ testimonies also clashed with those of other key personalities in the controversy.
The Philrem officials said Wong was present during all but two of the six times that they handed over the money to Xu. But Wong said that when he was present during the pickup of money from the Bautistas’ house, it was only he who got the cash, not Xu.
“Our beneficiary was Mr. Weikang Xu,” said Salud Bautista.
Wong and the Bautistas also differed on the amounts delivered. Wong said that $17 missing was unaccounted for, but Philrem insisted no funds remained with it.
Deguito also disputed Michael Bautista’s testimony that she directed Philrem to deliver the money to Xu. She does not know who Xu is, Deguito said.
Wong, a casino junket operator, turned out to play a big role in the controversy, as he received a significant portion of the $81 million.
Wong had named two Chinese nationals who knew of the entry of the $81 million to RCBC. Wong has turned over $4.63 million and P38.28 million of the dirty money to authorities. He promised to return P450 million more in the coming days.
Under questioning from Sen. Ralph Recto, it turned out that Michael Bautista, Wong, and Deguito knew each other even before the $81-million transaction. Philrem is a “central player” in the scheme, Recto said. “All of the money passed through it,” he said.
The $81 million in the RCBC account of William Go was sent to Philrem, which converted part of it to pesos and sent it to Xu, Eastern Hawaii Leisure Co. and Bloomberry Hotels Inc.
Salud Bautista initially testified that Philrem delivered the P600 million and $18 million in several tranches to Xu. Salud herself made the first delivery at Solaire.
In a subsequent hearing, Wong said that he was present when portions of the money were picked up from the Bautistas’ residence. Wong was also present when the first tranche was delivered at Solaire. The Bautistas later confirmed Wong’s presence during several deliveries.
“In the first two or three hearings, they did not mention anything about Kim Wong picking up the money with them. Withheld information. This is material because we’re still looking for $15 million to $20 million that’s missing,” Recto said.
He also said Philrem at first only mentioned a P600 million delivery and only mentioned the $18 million in the next hearing.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III also said he felt as if the Senate was being fooled.
Michael Bautista said Philrem officials have been answering all questions put to them from the start and have cooperated with the Anti-Money Laundering Council.
“We came in to the Senate knowing that at the end of the day, we will have to take hits for our business because there are a lot of questions on how we do things. However, sir, we’ve always accepted the fact that this transaction was a mistake and we will take the hit because we have to help solve this problem for everybody,” he said.
No money left
He insisted there was no money remaining with Philrem.
Salud Bautista also said she did not contradict herself. She said her first testimony was that she delivered just the first tranche at Solaire. She was with messenger Mark Palmares, who was summoned to the Senate but failed to show up Tuesday due to illness.
Upon questioning, Salud Bautista disclosed Tuesday that Wong was among the persons with Xu when she made the first cash delivery.
She also said she did not reveal many details of the transaction because she could be held criminally liable for disclosing details of the suspicious transaction report.
Deguito, for her part, said she chose Philrem to convert the $81 million to pesos after Wong, who she referred to as “Sir Kim,” asked for a recommendation. She said she selected Philrem because Wong knew Michael Bautista, which meant it would be easy to clarify things if necessary.
But Michael Bautista said he did not know that the deal involved Wong, since the transaction came from an RCBC account belonging to William Go. He did not talk to Go, but since the branch manager was involved, he trusted the transaction.
Deguito also said Wong’s instructions were just to remit the money to Eastern Hawaii Leisure Co. and Bloomberry Hotels Inc. There was no instruction to send the money to Xu.
But the Philrem officials insisted that the directive to send the money to Xu came from the bank.
Just a pawn
Deguito said senior RCBC officials, conspiring with wealthy businessmen, were involved in the scandal but did not name names.
“I am but a pawn in a high-stakes chess game played by giants in international banking and high finance. If this committee is looking for a ‘grandmaster,’ it is not me,” Deguito said. “The line runs much higher and involves persons with much more clout and authority than a simple bank manager with modest capabilities,” she added.
“If I had made mistakes, it is these: That I believed and trusted the bank president Mr. Lorenzo Tan; that I followed him when he said I should ‘take care’ of his friend; that I relied on the fact that Mr. Tan could not have been unaware of a transaction that has been labeled the biggest bank heist in the history of the world,” she said.
She said recent testimonies pinned her down as the main mover in the laundering scheme, but she said she was too mid-level to be a consequential player in transactions worth almost P4 billion.
“Truly, a crime of this magnitude could be possible only with the participation of people from the highest officialdom of RCBC, in cahoots with extremely wealthy businessmen whose far-reaching powers and influence span several countries,” she said.
According to her, she had “unwittingly” allowed herself to be made the scapegoat, when all she wanted was to advance her career, boost her performance as bank manager and help provide for her family.
But Sen. Sergio Osmeña III said Deguito cannot talk in terms of “speculative statements” and should provide names.
“If there’s a grand conspiracy, she should present evidence that are indicative of that conspiracy,” Osmeña told reporters.
Senator Guingona, the committee chair, said he found “very disturbing” the exchange between RCBC legal counsel Maria Celia Estavillo and Deguito at the hearing.
Estavillo said that Deguito, her aide Angela Torres and their immediate supervisors were informed via e-mail last year that “thank you letters” of the bank to four of the five bank account holders (which became recipient of the stolen money) for opening accounts were returned to RCBC. This meant that the address given by the four bank holders were not accurate.
But Deguito denied she received any such notice via e-mail. Deguito said she had been pulled out from the branch on Feb. 12 and when she returned to work on Feb. 16, she was told she was under preventive suspension.
“Since that time, I have no access to my e-mail, I have no access to my documents. I stayed away from everybody in the bank so that they can freely have an investigation. As to what happened to the e-mails, to the documents, I really have no idea,” Deguito said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.