MANILA, Philippines – Before a Malacañang-created committee can even begin its probe into bribery allegations against the Pagcor chief, some lawmakers already cleared him of the charges.
A House committee expressed support for beleaguered Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) chairman Cristino Naguiat Jr. The Pagcor chief is under fire over a controversy surrounding free VIP hotel accommodations that he and his family received courtesy of a Japanese businessman investing in a Manila casino complex.
In a hearing on Monday, February 27, House committee on games and amusement chair (Manila) Rep. Amado Bagatsing said Naguiat is a mere victim in the boardroom battle between casino magnates Kazuo Okada of Japan and Steve Wynn of Las Vegas.
Other committee members shared the sentiment, moving to ban Wynn from investing in the Philippine gaming industry. Bagatsing said a resolution will be made “expressing the sense” of the committee to ban Wynn, which will be forwarded to the House plenary for action.
“We have something to do with [this dispute] because the Philippines is being pictured by Wynn as corrupt that’s why he sued [Okada] for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, therefore, we are being dragged as a country also,” Bagatsing said.
Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone made the motion to ban Wynn. Evardone is an ally of President Aquino, a classmate and friend of Naguiat.
“The perception of many congressmen is that Wynn’s allegations destroyed the image of the Philippines,” Evardone said in an interview. “They should not have dragged the country into the issue.”
The lawmakers are convinced that Wynn is only using the issue of propriety to block Okada’s investment in the Bagong Nayong Pilipino – Entertainment City Manila. The project is touted to rival gaming destinations in the region, including Wynn Resort Ltd’s facility in Macau. (Read Murky past catches up with Pagcor for background on the controversy on the Entertainment City.)
Despite the controversy, Okada said he is pushing through with his US$2 billion investment in the Entertainment City, and even stressed that the Philippine venture “will be the best in the world.”
Bagatsing clarified though that the resolution to ban Wynn is only recommendatory. The power to grant licenses to foreign investors lies solely with Pagcor.
Just a room
The controversy is rooted in a lawsuit Wynn filed against Okada in a Nevada court last February 21. Wynn accuses his partner-turned-rival of violating a US law that prohibits companies and individuals from bribing foreign officials to do business in their countries.
The lawsuit was based on a Wynn-commissioned investigation conducted by former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh. The report said Okada spent US $110,000 in gifts and payments to foreign gaming regulators over 3 years.
The amount supposedly covered 3 foreign trips of Pagcor officials, including a 4-night stay of Naguiat, his wife, children, nanny and colleagues in the most expensive suite at the Wynn Resorts Macau.
Yet some lawmakers do not see anything wrong with Naguiat’s accepting the free accommodations.
Davao Del Sur Rep. Marc Douglas Cagas said, “I’m here to clear the name of the Pagcor chairman. If he was given a free room, that’s not enough! You’re a Pagcor chairman, granting licenses to all gaming companies in the Philippines.”
“For Steve Wynn to accuse Pagcor of being vulnerable to bribery is for me, ridiculous. Kwarto lang, inaangal pa?”(It’s just a room, they’re still complaining about it?)
During the Monday hearing, Naguiat reiterated that he did nothing wrong or improper in accepting the VIP hotel accommodations, calling it an industry practice. He said he was even responsible for exposing anomalies in Pagcor during the Arroyo administration.
“I am proud to say that since I began my term as Pagcor chairman, not once did I veer away from the straight and narrow path of our President,” he told lawmakers, referring to the campaign promise of President Benigno Aquino III.
Naguiat is a good friend and classmate of Aquino at the Ateneo de Manila University. He campaigned for Aquino in the 2010 election.
Aquino has ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the controversy. The Palace had initially cleared Naguiat.
In an interview after the hearing, she said the incident is another example of the contradiction between Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign and the special treatment for his so-called Kaibigan, Kaklase, Kabarilan (KKK) or friends, classmates and shooting buddies.
“That’s being a pattern with this administration, that every time people in their administration, whether a KKK does it, they always absolve the party right away. Nakakasawa na eh.” (It’s getting tiring.)
“It’s such a hypocrisy that this administration will espouse daang matuwid (straight and narrow path) but they don’t really follow what daang matuwid is supposed to do.”
Magsaysay said she does not understand why the administration is pushing to convict impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona for accepting and using a Philippine Airlines platinum card, among others, but sees nothing wrong in Naguiat’s acceptance of hotel perks.
Does Wynn care?
Asked what she thinks about the resolution to ban Wynn, Magsaysay said, “In the first place, do you think Steve Wynn will care?
“He already said he doesn’t want to do business with the country because he thinks graft and corruption happens in the country. It’s no big deal to him. We think we’re insulted but sometimes you also think, ‘Do we deserve the comment or not?'”
Wynn had declined to join Okada in his Philippine ventures on fears these would compete with Wynn Resorts main cash cow in nearby Macau. – Rappler.com