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Editorial

A conspiracy of one?

/ 05:28 AM January 17, 2019

Maia Santos Deguito, the former branch manager of Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) at the center of the $81-million cyberheist three years ago, was found guilty last week on eight counts of money laundering by the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC). She was sentenced to a jail term of up to 56 years and was also ordered to pay a total fine of $109.5 million.

While not a few had expected the conviction, many are in disbelief that a single person — a bank branch manager at that and not a ranking bank official — will be solely responsible for a crime that crossed international borders and involved the Bangladesh central bank and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, among others.

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It is odd that the court convicted only her and no one else. This only bolsters suspicion that Deguito is somehow being made a scapegoat in one of the world’s biggest cybercrimes — the same scenario she had sketched out in a statement she made during a Senate hearing on the case in 2016.

Calling herself “an unwitting scapegoat,” Deguito had protested that “a crime of this magnitude could be possible only with the participation of people from the highest officialdom of the bank in cahoots with extremely wealthy businessmen whose far-reaching powers and influence span several countries.”

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The case involved the illegal fund transfers from the account of the Bangladesh central bank with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to four accounts under fictitious names opened at RCBC’s branch on Jupiter Street in Makati City, then headed by Deguito.

The funds were withdrawn and found their way into casinos, where they eventually disappeared. The government has been helping Bangladesh trace and recover the missing money, but only $15 million has been recovered, after it was returned by a junket operator.

Citing a witness’ testimony, Judge Cesar Untalan of the Makati City RTC Branch 149 ruled that Deguito “had not only facilitated these subject illegal bank transactions,” but also “coordinated and corroborated to the execution of these illegal bank transactions.”

The judge added that the testimony of witness Rafael Echaluse, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) secretariat officer who investigated the case, was “good enough” to convict Deguito.

It was Echaluse who alleged that, among others, certain accounts in the Jupiter branch were opened and used to receive and transfer “unauthorized remittances” from the Bangladesh central bank’s account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Deguito facilitated, coordinated and corroborated in the execution and implementation of the illegal bank transactions, according to the court order.

For whom? Who were the other people involved in those transactions? With whom did she coordinate to execute and implement the illegal banking transactions? Who gained financially from this illegal deal?

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No way could Deguito have done this alone. Someone had to send the money to her bank branch, and there were other personalities who got involved when the money was withdrawn from the branch.

Assuming she orchestrated this caper all by her lonesome, what did she gain from it? Why bring some of the money to junket operators in Solaire casino or to foreign exchange traders if she did it all by and for herself?

At this point, it is truly difficult to believe the court’s contention, that Deguito was alone in committing this elaborate cybercrime.

Movements of funds this big usually need the vetting and approval of higher-ups. If she is guilty of anything, that could perhaps be in allowing herself to be used in perpetrating this crime.

Demetrio Custodio, one of Deguito’s lawyers, aptly put it in an interview on the ANC network: There should be more people who should be more liable for this, other than a lowly bank officer who had nothing to do with operational matters.

Asad Alam Siam, ambassador of Bangladesh to the Philippines, is hoping that another case being handled by the Department of Justice against six other RCBC officials, including a former treasurer, can be expedited and go to trial soon for a decision.

The AMLC has also noted that other cases are pending in regional trial courts against Kam Sin Wong, also known as Kim Wong, owner of Eastern Hawaii Leisure Co. to which some of the missing funds were reportedly transferred by remittance agent Philrem Service Corp., as well as against Philrem owners Michael and Salud Bautista.

This embarrassing crime cannot simply end with the conviction of Deguito.

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TAGS: Bangladesh Central Bank, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Inquirer editorial, Maia Santos Deguito, Makati RTC, RCBC money laundering
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