‘Victory for the people’
That wonders never cease was demonstrated in the recent plunder and graft conviction of two law-fraternity brothers of President Duterte and a businessman and ex-cop. In a country where power or proximity to it allows, for example, the eventual promotion of police officers who shot and killed a mayor in jail on drug charges in the dead of night, it delivers a message that justice may still be attained. In the welter of occasions for collective anger and disgust, it gives a little hope.
It’s a story of a shakedown, an operation known to be customary in the Bureau of Immigration (BI) and some other government agencies. Per records, in November 2016, mere months into the Duterte presidency, then BI associate commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles extorted P50 million from Chinese gambling tycoon Jack Lam in exchange for the release of 1,316 Chinese nationals earlier rounded up for alleged illegal employment at Fontana Leisure Parks and Casino in Clark, Pampanga. It was later found that about 100 of them were minors and tourists, who were subsequently freed.
Argosino and Robles, Lex Talionis Fraternitas brothers of Mr. Duterte and of then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, received the cash from Wenceslao Sombero Jr., ex-cop and president of Asian Gaming Service Provider Association Inc., who served as middleman in the transaction. The handover occurred at the posh hotel-casino City of Dreams Manila, and was caught on CCTV cameras; the incriminating footage included the two lawyers leaving the premises with the bags of money and carrying these out to the parking lot.
The fallout was so intense that Mr. Duterte fired Argosino and Robles in December 2016. Mercifully still deemed scandalous despite its being practically de rigueur hereabouts, the shakedown caught the attention of the Senate and merited an inquiry by the blue ribbon committee chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon. The hearings began in January 2017, during which Argosino and Robles said straight-faced that they had received bribe money in the course of investigating Lam and had brought it home to keep it safe as evidence before turning it over to the Philippine National Police.
But there’s more to this sordid affair. Aguirre, one of the first of Mr. Duterte’s “brods” to be appointed to the government as among the vaunted “best and brightest,” attempted to get Argosino, Robles, and Sombero off the plunder hook by claiming that the money they eventually turned over to the government didn’t actually make the cut.
As though to prove the long-held suspicion that many lawyers — including and especially those reputedly “de campanilla” — serve only to skillfully bend the law, he said the money was P1,000 short of P50 million, the minimum amount for a plunder case. (On Oct. 17, 2017, the Inquirer wrote in this space: “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?”)
The National Bureau of Investigation, which is under the supervision of the justice secretary, forthwith modified its plunder recommendation to the lesser charges of graft and direct bribery. But then Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales proceeded to press the plunder charge. And the Sandiganbayan found that the money — including the P18 million given to BI acting intelligence chief Charles Calima Jr. which he turned over to the PNP, and the P2 million given to Sombero which he turned over to the Ombudsman—totaled P50 million.
In its two separate rulings, the Sandiganbayan’s sixth division found Argosino, Robles, and Sombero guilty of plunder and of graft, for which they were sentenced to up to 40 years and 6-10 years in prison, respectively. It also pronounced them perpetually disqualified from holding public office.
“This is a victory for the people and our justice system,” said Gordon, whose committee had recommended plunder and graft charges against Argosino, Robles, and Sombero. “This shows that the hard work and careful handling of evidence by investigators in the blue ribbon can conquer and defeat corruption with the assistance of the public and relevant government agencies.”
Aguirre got off scot-free, but the conviction is a significant development that recalls the much-missed “Daang Matuwid” administration, during which three sitting senators among others were charged with plundering P10 billion in pork barrel, the inexhaustible trough from which family fortunes have been made. That milestone has since taken a twisted turn, but hope still springs that power will crumble before Lady Justice’s implacable might.
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.