Wheeling and dealing
That was quite a show that Wenceslao “Wally” Sombero put on when he finally appeared at the Senate on Thursday. Previously, he was a three-time no-show before the blue ribbon committee, which is investigating the bribery scandal involving casino mogul Jack Lam and some 1,300 Chinese nationals arrested as undocumented workers at his casino complex in Clark.
The scandal has engulfed two former immigration commissioners, now sacked, who were caught on camera accepting P50 million in bribe money from Sombero; the stench has reached Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre as well, for his suspicious presence in these goings-on, and, not least, his bombshell revelation—eventually retracted—that he, too, had been the subject of a bribe attempt by Sombero.
If anyone thought Sombero’s delayed appearance at the Senate hearing was an indication of fear or apprehension, that notion was proven wrong when the former cop finally showed himself to the senators and the public and began talking. Unlike many invitees to Senate hearings who are reduced to nervous, stuttering wrecks, Sombero was smooth, suave, unruffled—a man who has obviously spent a lifetime perfecting his sense of self-presentation.
He presented himself as an “expert” on online gaming, a sought-after resource person on the subject who has conducted talks about it here and abroad, and one who has waged a “lonely one-man crusade” to help develop the online gaming industry in the country. By then, his role as a fixer in brokering the transaction between Lam and the two immigration commissioners, Al Argosino and Michael Robles, had been well documented, but he was having none of the unsavory connotations that now cling to his name over his part in this sordid saga.
Asked by Sen. Richard Gordon what his relationship was to Lam, Sombero said there was no relationship. Gordon tried again: Given his agency in paying off government officials to grease the release of Lam’s detained Chinese workers, obviously he was somebody trusted enough by the Chinese businessman to do things for him. There was no relationship, repeated Sombero.
And on it went—an hours-long spectacle of evasion, parrying, bald-faced denial, convoluted explanation, even hilarious word substitution. The P50 million wasn’t a bribe, Sombero insisted; it was “goodwill money.” He wasn’t serving in any capacity as a middleman; he was merely “liaising” between the two groups. As for the Chinese workers found to be without proper documents, there was nothing illegal about it, he said—prompting
Sen. Joel Villanueva to refer to him as a “scumbag.”
Sombero’s glib, practiced manner at muddying the issue, diverting questions, and reframing the story drew the annoyance of the senators, but one must admit it was a display of skill—a curious one, given the supreme self-assurance that undergirded it. Where is Sombero getting the moxie to attempt to lie and mislead before the Senate and the public?
The man appears to have cultivated a network of powerful connections and a reputation for wheeling and dealing in high circles. How else to explain why Lam turned to him to fix the problem with immigration, and why his contacts of choice there were Argosino and Robles, appointees and fraternity brothers no less of Aguirre and President Duterte? Sen. Manny Pacquiao has also admitted to being a longtime friend of Sombero—an interesting fact that Pacquiao failed to mention during the previous Senate hearings on the issue.
Sombero is clearly a man who knows much more than he is willing to publicly divulge. What else does he know, and how high up does the information go? His first public accounting of his actions only raised more questions than answers, and not even the senators’ huffing and puffing dented his capacity for devious, prevaricating answers. If there’s one case crying out for perjury charges, Sombero’s remarkable performance at the Senate appears to be it.