Aguirre on payoffs: I felt betrayed
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II felt “betrayed” that two of his fraternity brothers in the Bureau of Immigration (BI) were caught on video allegedly extorting money from gaming tycoon Jack Lam.
The BI is under the Department of Justice.
Aguirre on Tuesday ordered the immediate relief of Associate Commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles, who turned over P30 million of the P50 million they received from Lam’s representative at the City of Dreams hotel and casino in Parañaque City on Nov. 27.
Lam’s representative was Wenceslao “Wally” Sombero, a retired police senior superintendent.
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez called on the two BI officials to resign voluntarily to “spare President Duterte the embarrassment” of firing them.
Aguirre said he was withholding any opinion on the culpability of his fellow members of Lex Talionis until the National Bureau of Investigation and the BI had completed their parallel probes because of the conflicting versions from the two camps. Lex Talionis is a San Beda Law school fraternity that counts President Duterte as its most famous member.
“Don’t ask my opinion. I don’t want to make a prejudgment. Ask them. You should ask them, not me. I’ve told you the circumstances, the timeline of what I know,” Aguirre said in a press conference.
He said it was Sombero—not his fraternity brothers—who first told him about the payoffs made to Argosino and Robles on Friday, a day after the former police official surrendered to the NBI.
The alleged bribery was first exposed in the media by Inquirer columnist Ramon Tulfo on Saturday, but he did not name Argosino or Robles in his column.
Aguirre said Sombero was “scared” because four contingents of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group with 12 agents each were deployed to hunt him down. On Dec. 3, the President ordered Philippine National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa to arrest both Lam and Sombero for bribery and economic sabotage.
“I was informed of this P50 million but I don’t know the circumstances because (they are swapping charges against each other). According to Sombero, this was for the release of around 600 Chinese illegals (caught working in Lam’s illegal online casino),” he said.
“According to the two commissioners, this was for the help they were going to give them (Lam) to secure the license (online gaming). According to Sombero, these are extortion money. According to the commissioners, this is a frame-up, a set-up money,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre said he planned to deposit the cash produced by Argosino or Robles in a bank for safekeeping.
“According to them (commissioners), this is just to show that the money is intact and that they have not taken anything,” Aguirre said.
The justice secretary said the investigation of Argosino and Robles would continue based on Sombero’s claim that the associate immigration commissioners had extorted money from Lam. He said he had yet to see “a single paragraph” of the complaint filed by Argosino and Robles against Lam and Sombero. The associate commissioners filed the case only on Tuesday.
Aguirre said he also wanted to look deeper into the involvement of BI acting intelligence chief Charles Calima, who reportedly helped his former police colleague, Sombero, in setting up surveillance cameras to record the transaction.
He said he was wary of the close connections between Sombero and Calima, prompting him to tell Sombero when they met at the Sangri-La Hotel in Bonifacio Global City on Nov. 26 to coordinate with BI commissioners and not with Calima.
Aguirre said the fate of Argosino and Robles would ultimately be up to the President. “I can only recommend. I have no power to dismiss them because I am not the appointing power,” said the secretary, who admitted to endorsing Argosino for the post.
“Of course, you’d felt betrayed. You felt they were not following the order of the President to go after corruption,” he said.
The alleged payoff was made just hours after Aguirre himself turned down a bribe offer from Lam, through Sombero, when they met at Shangri-La Hotel.
Aguirre said Lam, through Sombero, wanted to know if he could be Lam’s “ninong” or protector after the Nov. 24 raid on Lam’s illegal online gaming operations at Fontana Leisure Parks and Casino at Clark Freeport in Pampanga.
The justice secretary rejected the bribe offer outright and asked Sombero to tell Lam to just follow the rules and get an online gaming license, pay what was due the government from his casino and stop corrupting his people at the BI for the release of the 1,316 illegal Chinese workers caught at Fontana. —WITH A REPORT FROM DJ YAP