Hard lessons learned as Senate ends bank heist probe

Chrisee Dela Paz
Senators assure an upset Bangladesh Ambassador John Gomes that the money stolen from his government would be returned 'up to the last centavo,' as the Senate ends its probe on the grand money-laundering scheme

LAST HEARING. Senate blue ribbon committee ends its two-month probe into the Bangladesh Bank fund heist on May 19. Photos by Chrisee Dela Paz/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The Senate probe into Bangladesh Bank’s stolen millions ended with an upset foreign envoy and hard lessons learned on how the Philippines’ banking loopholes and its flawed anti-money laundering law can put the country in a bad light.

Since March, Philippine senators held 7 hearings to track the mastermind of the elaborate monely laundering scheme and ultimately trace the $81-million stolen funds from Bangladesh Bank‘s account in New York. 

During the two-month probe, a total of about $15 million was turned over to the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC). The Philippine government was also able to trace most of the laundered money, leaving $17 million still unaccounted for.

But as the Philippines prepared for its transition to a new administration, Senator Teofisto “TG” Guingona III said the committee needs to end the probe and prepare a committee report, which is expected “by next week.” (READ: TIMELINE: Tracing the $81-million stolen fund from Bangladesh Bank)

“Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we do have to end and do a committee report. The process does not stop with the hearings. These just make it very transparent and open. After the hearings, executive branch will still continue recovering the money,” Guingona, Senate blue ribbon committee chairman, said at the final hearing on the heist on Thursday, May 19.

Slap on the face

Although casino junket operator Kam Sin “Kim” Wong had turned over $15 million to AMLC, this does not guarantee a fast turnover as it has to undergo a civil forfeiture case. (READ: Network: Who’s who in the RCBC money-laundering scam)

Bangladesh Ambassador to the Philippines John Gomes expressed outraged that the surrendered money has yet to be returned to his country’s central bank.

DISMAYED. 'It would be like a slap on my face,' Gomes tells the committee

“It would be like a slap on my face,” the ambassador told the committee. “The whole world knows it is our money, so it is our request that this should be followed through.”

“We don’t want to be kept in the black. So I would like to know what happens now since the Senate is concluding its hearing? If we started positively, then we don’t want to end negatively,” an upset Gomes said.

Of the $81 million, AMLC Executive Director Julia Bacay-Abad said about $15 million was surrendered, $21 million is supposedly with casinos, another $28 million of Solaire Resort and Casino is still subject to the Supreme Court’s decision on the petition for freeze order, and $17 million is unaccounted for.

Hearings not dead end

Echoing Guingona, Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV assured Gomes that the hearings will not be a dead end to the Philippine government’s investigation.

“We won’t stop until the money stolen from the Bangladeshi people is returned – up to the last centavo,” Aquino told the ambassador. (READ: RCBC, 3 casinos linked to $100M Bangladesh Bank fund heist)

The senator then expressed gratitude to Gomes for his patience and participation in all 7 hearings.

Gomes also assured the Senate panel that Bangladesh-Philippines relations “won’t be affected” by the bank heist.

“I would say that what the Philippines is doing for us [to help recover the money] is highly regarded in Bangladesh,” Gomes said.

Reforms

For Guingona, the Senate hearings has paved the way for reforms in the Philippines’ weak bank secrecy laws and Anti-Money Laundering act (AMLA),  which have made the impression that the country is a dirty money destination.

“In our committee report, there will be observations and recommendations on the amendments to the AMLA laws, bank secrecy, and foreign currency deposits laws,” Guingona, who ends his term on June 30, said.

For Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Deputy Governor Nestor Espenilla Jr, the central bank’s report will detail policy proposals and penalty recommendations.

REFORMS READIED. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Deputy Governor Nestor Espenilla Jr. says the central bank's report will detail policy proposals and penalty recommendations

“There will be recommendations there on what can be done, among other things, to prevent this kind of situation and also to hold accountable if [there are] any people who may be responsible. We’re working on it very fast. Well, done already, so we should submit it very soon,” Espenilla told reporters after the hearing.

But for Senator Sergio Osmeña III, the Senate blue ribbon committee report does not guarantee changes in the laws.

I can put any number there but there is no guarantee that it will be followed. The next committee and the next chairman will be the one who will discuss that among the new senators. It cannot be said that because Osmeña said this, then it should be like this,” said Osmeña, who also ends his term on June 30 after losing a reelection bid.

Guingona was more optimistic: “What’s important is we were able to show the world that the Philippines is determined in showing it has the resolve, the political will to show it will not allow itself to be a money laundering capital.” – Rappler.com