Aguirre in the dock
That was a lot to take in, in the first hearing conducted by the Senate blue ribbon committee in the 17th Congress. After two deputy commissioners were caught on closed-circuit TV receiving five paper bags full of cash, the P50-million bribery scandal involving immigration officials—possibly implicating even the justice secretary himself—could no longer be swept under the parliamentary rug. But when those involved showed up at the Senate on Monday, they told a tale full of sound and fury, signifying … what exactly?
The attempted bribery is a real scandal, not least because of that compelling video footage. This case is a true test of the resolve of the Duterte administration and its allies to fight the scourge of corruption. It is vitally important, then, to read past the conflicting testimonies and documents what all the key participants actually agree on.
1. Last November, Macau tycoon Jack Lam’s unregistered online casino business inside the Clark special economic zone was raided by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Immigration (BI).
2. In that raid, about 1,300 undocumented Chinese workers were arrested.
3. Some 800 of those workers managed to escape, apparently in the first hours of the raid.
4. Retired police general Wally Sombero, an aide of Lam’s, brokered a meeting with then deputy commissioner Al Argosino and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II himself, in a bid to free the workers still in detention. That meeting between Lam (who was accompanied by two interpreters and by Sombero) and Aguirre, who was with Argosino, took place, briefly, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Bonifacio Global City on Nov. 26.
5. Argosino met with Lam again later on the same day at the City of Dreams, this time, accompanied by another deputy commissioner, Michael Robles. CCTV footage showed the two Immigration executives leaving the hotel with five bags stuffed with cash. The total amount was first reported to be P50 million.
6. Argosino and Robles surrendered P30 million to the Department of Justice on Dec. 13.
7. BI acting intelligence chief Charles Calima, another retired police general, filed a plunder charge against the two executives on Dec. 22.
8. Calima was fired by Aguirre on Dec. 13; Argosino and Robles by President Duterte on Dec. 17.
The following facts are disputed, or still unanswered as of press time, by other parties:
1. According to Argosino and Robles, the bags contained only P48 million, not P50 million. Sombero, they said, kept P2 million.
2. They also said Calima received P18 million—because they said they had been blackmailed by him.
3. Argosino said Aguirre told him, after the short meeting with Lam in the first hotel: “Kayo nang bahala diyan” (You take care of it).
4. Aguirre told the Senate committee that Sombero had impressed upon him during their meeting that Lam was extremely rich, needed protection and was looking for a “ninong” (or godfather). “I rejected the proposal because I know where the conversation was going.” Sombero was unable to testify at the first hearing for medical reasons.
This accounting of undisputed facts and contentious assertions does not paint a flattering portrait of Aguirre. Indeed, the classic question asked during the US Senate hearings into the Watergate break-in, which eventually led to the first and only resignation of an American president, applies to Aguirre in this case: What did he know, and when did he know it?
Even committee chair Sen. Richard Gordon, an administration ally, said Aguirre needed to offer better explanations for his action or lack of action. Gordon has a point. Aguirre must satisfactorily explain why he failed to cause Sombero’s arrest the moment the bribery attempt was made. He must satisfactorily explain what he meant when he gave Argosino leave to handle the matter as he saw fit. He must satisfactorily explain why he acted on Calima’s case but went easy on his deputy commissioners.
A government invested in an all-out war against corruption must expect more from its justice secretary.
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.