MANILA, Philippines – Two former Bureau of Immigration commissioners, who are fraternity brothers of President Rodrigo Duterte and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, appeared to have skirted plunder law through a missing P1,000 bill from the retrieved P50 million bribe money.
This was revealed during the Senate deliberations on the proposed P17.43 billion budget of the Department of Justice on Tuesday, October 10.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon asked the status of the P50 million bribe money from Chinese tycoon Jack Lam, as well as the status of former deputy commissioners Michael Robles and Al Argosino, members of Lex Talionis Fraternity, involved in the controversy. (READ: Senate BI bribery probe: 3 hard questions for Aguirre)
Senate finance committee chair Loren Legarda, citing Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II beside her, said the two were sacked and that there is a total of P49,999,000 funds surrendered, just P1,000 short for the case to be plunder.
Of this amount, Aguirre said P2 million was turned over to the Ombudsman; P18 million to the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), while P29,999,000 was turned over to the DOJ.
Republic Act 7659 states that the minimum amount of illegally acquired wealth to qualify as plunder is P50 million.
At first, Legarda thought Aguirre’s information was a “joke.” It was Aguirre who ordered an office under him, the National Bureau of Investigation, to probe the alleged bribery. It was also the NBI that recommended the filing of graft and direct bribery charges against the two, which are both lower than plunder.
Upon hearing Aguirre say that the total amount returned is P49,999,000, Legarda quipped: “You're kidding. Amazing.”
Drilon then said: “Come on. Can I believe what I’m hearing?”
Legarda said it was a joke but quickly corrected herself: “It’s a joke. Oh, it’s not a joke? Kulang po ng P1,000 bago maging plunder.”
Legarda told Drilon she “thought it was a joke,” with the latter saying it is not a laughing matter and that there is a “deliberate attempt” to escape non-bailable plunder charges.
Drilon, in disbelief, asked if the P1,000 was eaten by rats, citing his previous experience as DOJ chief. He recalled how, during his time, drug evidence brought to court suddenly go missing, with suspects' camps saying these were eaten by rats.
“Ito kaya kinain din ang P1,000 ng isang daga para di maging plunder? (Could rodents have also eaten the 1,000 peso bill to avoid the charge of plunder?)
Legarda replied, “Siguro dagang dalawang paa.” (Probably, two-footed rodents.)
Aguirre claimed the DOJ did not participate in the counting of the money, saying it is the bank that did that. Aguirre also claimed they had a CCTV when the counting happened.
But Drilon did not buy any of it.
“Alam nyo po (You know, sir) we have this rule in evidence that the evidence must be consistent with the ordinary human experience. Nakakapagtaka po na ang P50 million, naging P49 million na lang. (Isn't it odd that the P50 million was reduced to P49 million.) Incidentally P50 million is the threshold for plunder. I do not know who should conduct the investigation here. May nawala na P1,000. Ang nakakalungkot lamang ay hindi na plunder ang ipa-file dito dahil nawala ang P1,000,” (The sad part is, you can't file plunder charges because you lost the P1,000.)
"Kapag humingi po kayo ng bribe, pwde n’yo bang sabihin na P49,999,000 lang? (When you ask for a bribe, do you tell them: make it P49,999,000 only?) This is totally inconsistent with human experience,. I do hope that the Ombudsman would see through heavens. I hope the Ombudsman would come up with the solution," he said.
The senator slammed the blatant “mockery of justice,” saying drug suspects are killed or shot at once while the former commissioners are manipulating evidence.
“So isn’t it quite obvious that there is a mockery of justice here? They are trying to protect their own hide, and I don't know who is behind all of this? This is blatant mockery.” Drilon said.
“Yung suspected drug dealers [at] users, e capital penalty, baril, patay. Ito, minamaneobra para makalabas sa kulungan kung makulong man. That is the kind of justice we see in this particular case,” he added. (Suspected drug dealers get the capital penalty. They are gunned down, dead. Here we are manipulated to ensure the culprits can get out of jail, if ever they are jailed.)
According to Aguirre, the NBI already recommended the filing of graft and direct bribery charges against Argosino and Robles before the Ombudsman.
But Drilon said that the penalty for such crimes is way lower than if the case is plunder. Violation of graft laws, he said, has a penalty of 6 to 15 years imprisonment while direct bribery, 8 years imprisonment.
Plunder, meanwhile, imposes reclusion perpetua and is a non-bailable offense. – Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, 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