Senators grill DOJ chief on bribe rap
Senators ganged up on Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on Thursday, suggesting that he could have prevented the multimillion-peso scandal at the Bureau of Immigration (BI) had he rejected outright an offer to be a godfather to Chinese casino mogul Jack Lam.
Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate blue ribbon committee, slammed the head of the Department of Justice (DOJ) after former Deputy Commissioners Michael Robles and Al Argosino denied retired police official Wenceslao “Wally” Sombero’s claim that the BI officials had extorted millions for the release of 1,300 Chinese nationals illegally working in the country.
“We were there to help them. We were there to discuss things. They laid out money on us,” Robles said.
Gordon pointed out, “They laid out money on you but why did you accept it? Why didn’t you report that? Why did it take 17 days for you to surface?”
Asked if he had spoken with Lam, Aguirre said he had not and that it was Sombero who told him, during a meeting last November, that Lam owned Fontana Leisure Parks and Casino and Fort Ilocandia, and had the biggest online gaming operation in the Philippines, aside from being among the biggest junket operators from Macau.
“He (Sombero) told me nobody’s been taking care of Lam for a long time. Is it OK if the secretary of justice becomes his ninong (godfather). I knew which direction our conversation was headed,” Aguirre said.
Gordon cut in, telling him, “You knew where it was headed so you should have charged him there and then. That’s a proposition. That’s seduction (to corruption).”
“You’re the secretary of justice, the lawyer of the government. You should have told him (Sombero), ‘I am going to have you arrested, you are trying to induce me to corruption. What do you mean?’”
No crime yet
Aguirre claimed he told Sombero off and maintained, “There is no crime that has yet been committed. I rejected that immediately because I know where the conversation is going and started to leave.”
An unconvinced Gordon said that Aguirre apparently gave a weak response prompting Argosino and Robles to return and complete the transaction with Sombero.
Gordon added, “We did not shut the door (against the monetary offer) right away, which is the problem. Had you shut the door, all of this wouldn’t have happened.”
Aguirre said that he could not order Sombero’s arrest at the time because there was no crime committed in the absence of an overt act of bribery but that he did tell Sombero, “If you want us to continue our conversation, do not corrupt my people.”
The senator was not impressed and told him, “You cannot arrest him but you could have shown umbrage. They completed the transaction, were emboldened because they heard neither a refusal nor a positive response from you.”
Aguirre replied, “I never expected they would keep talking (with Sombero) after I left. I have complete trust in my (fraternity) brothers, Argosino and Robles.”
Aguirre confirmed that he felt Sombero was attempting to bribe him. Sombero denied this, saying that he met with the justice secretary to make a proposal in behalf of Lam pertaining to Fontana.
During the hearing, Sombero made reluctant admissions that he had arranged the turnover of P50 million in cash to the then BI officials, saying it was “payoff” and not a case of “extortion or bribery.”
Sombero spoke on the defensive as he gave circuitous testimony on how he came to give cash to Argosino and Robles in the early hours last Nov. 27 at an upscale hotel casino in Parañaque City.
“Mr. Chair, I’d like [to put on] record that what happened at the CoD (City of Dreams) from Nov. 26 to 6.30 a.m., Nov. 27, no extortion or bribery happened for the record,” said Sombero, drawing silence from the hall.
After a pause, he then said: “What happened was a payoff.”
“It was a business decision of the Jack Lam group to agree on that amount,” he said, adding that a total of P100 million had been agreed upon to bail out the arrested Chinese nationals.
Sombero claimed he arranged the payoff as an “entrapment,” choosing the location of the handover where he knew the exchange was going to be documented.
The money allegedly came from Lam, whose associates had arranged the payoff on behalf of Next Games, a locator at his Clark Freeport Zone facility that employed the arrested Chinese nationals.
Lam and his men believed they were legally paying bail for the foreigners and quickly raised the money through calls to firms in China, according to his interpreter Alexander Yu and business partner Charlie “Atong” Ang.
The senators also got Sombero to admit that he remained in possession of a separate P10 million that he had asked from Lam’s group for partial fulfillment of Argosino’s request for another payment of P50 million.
When asked if he gave the first payment of P50 million, Sombero told Gordon: “I did not give P50 million. I do not have that kind of money.”
Upon clarification, he said: “I was the one who handed it over.”
Gordon reprimanded Sombero: “Don’t be a smart aleck, don’t give us the runaround.”
Gordon said that the Senate had been “very liberal” with him, giving him the free pass after missing three hearings while he was in Canada.
When again asked to characterize what happened at the hotel where money changed hands, Sombero repeated: “No bribery or extortion happened.”
Gordon retorted: “You’re being technical. Just tell the truth!”
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