P1k shy of plunder
Was it a joke? It wasn’t. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre was dead serious, if a bit sheepish.
Former immigration commissioners Michael Robles and Al Argosino — earlier sacked from their posts after they were caught on CCTV accepting P50 million in bribe money allegedly from casino mogul Jack Lam — were not being charged with plunder because the money recovered by the government amounted only to P49,999,000, or P1,000 short of the P50 million minimum amount required by the law for illegally acquired wealth to be considered plunder.
Where was the missing amount? The justice secretary could not say, saying it wasn’t the Department of Justice that counted the money, but a bank.
“You’re kidding. Amazing” was Sen. Loren Legarda’s reaction upon hearing Aguirre during a recent Senate hearing on the DOJ’s budget.
A disbelieving Sen. Franklin Drilon chimed in: “Come on. Can I believe what I’m hearing?”
They had to, eventually, along with the rest of an astounded public, once it became clear it was true: The two disgraced commissioners apparently had indeed saved themselves from plunder charges simply by the expedient incident of a crucial P1,000 gone missing.
This is shameless trickery of the highest order, a shocking case of mocking the law and gaming the system, but it’s also a testament to the sea change that has happened in Philippine politics that no less than the DOJ appears to be only too willing to shrug off the deceit.
Aguirre revealed during the hearing that, per the National Bureau of Investigation’s recommendation, Argosino and Robles were now facing graft and direct bribery charges at the Office of the Ombudsman—a steep downgrade from the original nonbailable case of plunder that the bare facts show to be their offense.
The case arose when casino mogul Jack Lam, accused of illegally hiring some 1,300 undocumented Chinese nationals for his casino complex in Clark, Pampanga, asked for leeway on his case from then Immigration Commissioners Robles and Argosino through middleman-fixer Wally Sombero—for a fee. The agreed-upon amount, which Sombero called “goodwill money,” was P50 million. Robles and Argosino were later caught on camera accepting paper bags containing the money. Lam, meanwhile, was accused by Aguirre himself of attempting to bribe him and Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. Chair Andrea Domingo, though he would rescind the accusation soon after, saying it was a case of “mere misunderstanding.”
Argosino and Robles would eventually profess the ridiculous defense that they accepted the money—and held on to it for 17 days—for “safekeeping” and as “future evidence” that a crime of bribery had indeed taken place. They also admitted that P18 million of it went to former intelligence chief Charles Calima Jr., after Calima told them he knew of the handoff in the City of Dreams casino in Parañaque City. In effect, those who had extorted ended up extorted from as well—and all of these people engaged in Mafia-like behavior were public officials.
Calima’s P18 million would be recovered and turned over to the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, along with P2 million to the Ombudsman, and, to the DOJ, the odd amount of P29,999,000. Until the Senate hearing, the public didn’t know how the case was proceeding, and certainly not the case of the missing P1,000. It now turns out that the sordid machinations are not over yet, with Argosino and Robles—fraternity brothers of Aguirre and President Duterte, who had appointed them to their posts—somehow finding a way to skirt the law.
Why is the DOJ letting this travesty pass? How is it possible for the justice secretary to even think that the public will buy, in any way or form, the bizarre explanation he has offered to justify the exculpation of his fraternity brothers from plunder? Who does he think he is kidding?
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