MANILA, Philippines – Despite being covered by an immigration lookout bulletin order (ILBO) that he himself issued, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II allowed the alleged middleman of Chinese gambling tycoon Jack Lam to leave the country ahead of a Senate probe that the latter was supposed to attend.
This was revealed at the 3rd Senate blue ribbon committee hearing on the Bureau of Immigration (BI) corruption scandal on Thursday, February 9, where retired police general Wenceslao “Wally” Sombero was again absent.
Sombero is in Canada for “medical purposes,” though he was supposed to have sought permission to leave for Las Vegas. He left the Philippines for Singapore on January 17 – a week before the Senate blue ribbon committee began its investigation.
Sombero's counsel, Ted Contacto, said that Sombero sought the permission of Aguirre to leave for Las Vegas on January 16, on the eve of Sombero's departure. Aguirre himself confirmed this but was not asked to explain why he allowed the travel.
“We formally informed Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II about my intention to travel abroad for medical intervention,” Sombero said in a letter read by Contacto.
Senator Richard Gordon, committee chair, asked Aguirre: “But he seems to be very courteous to you that he went to you to ask permission that he wants to go to Las Vegas? Why do you think he had to ask permission from you?"
Aguirre, in response, just said it is because of the ILBO issued against Sombero. He immediately passed on the issue to BI Commissioner Jaime Morente, with Gordon allowing him to do so. (READ: Senate BI bribery probe: 3 hard questions for Aguirre)
“May I request the commissioner to answer that? They already conducted an investigation on the matter," said Aguirre.
Sombero allegedly offered P50 million to former immigration associate commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles – fraternity brothers of Aguirre and President Rodrigo Duterte – in exchange for the release of some illegal Chinese workers in Lam's casino in Pampanga.
On December 16, Aguirre issued an ILBO against 7 personalities, including Sombero, in connection with the BI scandal.
Aguirre said then that this "was to ensure that every person of interest in the on-going investigations being conducted by the Bureau of Immigration, the National Bureau of Immigration, and the National Prosecution Service will be readily available to present their side of the story."
Gordon then spent most of the time questioning Morente for easily allowing Sombero to leave the country on January 17.
“Nagtataka lang ako. Alam mo hinahanap, alam mo sa media na pumuputok na. Paano makakalusot sa tao natin (I'm just wondering. You know this person is being searched for; the media has already reported it. How did he sneak past our people)?” Gordon asked.
In response, Morente said an immigration officer in the airport allowed Sombero to leave without any questions asked because the latter's formal name, Wenceslao, was on his passport. There was no alert when the passport was scanned because the ILBO indicated Wally – not Wenceslao – Sombero, he added.
Gordon denounced the reason and pointed out that Sombero is a frequent lecturer at the bureau.
Gordon slammed Morente for command responsibility. But Aguirre, the highest official in the DOJ who ultimately oversees immigration affairs and who himself issued the order, was not asked to explain why he allowed Sombero to leave.
“Command responsibility. It dictates you make sure that there’s a lookout bulletin, which goes by the name Wenceslao. He can go by the name of Wence, Wally. When he comes out, you better respond,” Gordon told Morente.
Morente answered, “We’re not hiding anything, your honor.”
To which Gordon instantly replied: “Seems like that. Can you blame us?”
Senator Leila de Lima, herself the subject of a lookout bulletin, said Sombero’s departure is “big issue.”
“This is a big issue. Bakit nakalusot si Mr Sombero, Wally Sombero, when his full name is Wenceslao Sombero?” De Lima said.
De Lima recalled how she was able to leave in December 2016 amid such order.
“These are new revelations – being able to leave under ILBO (immigration lookout bulletin order. It does not prevent the person from leaving but precisely, a lookout bulletin, so that the airport personnel would be able to monitor and ask where the subject is going,” she said.
“I was a subject and remains to be a subject of ILBO. I asked permission from the Secretary of Justice in December and when I arrived at the airport, several immigration officers were waiting for me, that’s the purpose of [the order]. I showed my travel authority to the immigration and they allowed me,” she said. – Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email firstname.lastname@example.org