Duterte orders arrest of Mighty Corp owner

MANILA, Philippines (5th UPDATE) – President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the arrest of the owner of Mighty Corporation for alleged "economic sabotage" for the use of fake cigarette tax stamps.

"Yes, I ordered his arrest... He's the one behind it, 'yung (the) fake cigarette stamps," said Duterte during a chance interview with reporters on Tuesday, March 7.

The President gave the order after he revealed to Cabinet officials that he received – and promptly returned – a boxful of cash from Mighty Corporation, which is facing a potential P1-billion tax evasion case over the use of fake cigarette tax stamps. (READ: Dominguez to BIR, BOC: Sue smugglers)

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo told reporters that the economic sabotage charge is in connection with the cigarette company's alleged use of fake tax stamps.

"He was ordered arrested by the President because of economic sabotage," Panelo said, referring to Mighty Corporation president Alexander Wongchuking.

"Marami siyang ginagawa saka pinangangalandakan niyang nabibili niya lahat ng opisyales dito sa ating bansa eh (He has been doing a lot of things and he has been boasting that he can buy off all of the officials in our country)," Panelo added.

Wongchuking went to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headquarters early Tuesday afternoon, to meet with Director Dante Gierran and other NBI officials. His lawyer said Wongchuking told the NBI he is ready to cooperate with authorities on any tax probe into Mighty Corporation.

Wongchuking also had a closed-door meeting with Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II and Gierran, but declined media interviews after the meeting.

Mighty Corporation had earlier denied allegations that it used fake tax stamps on its cigarettes.

'Bribe try'

In the same chance interview, Duterte clarified Palace officials' earlier statements that a cigarette company had tried to bribe him. 

At a news briefing, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella confirmed that a cigarette company, which he did not name, attempted to bribe Duterte. He was asked if it was true that Duterte had berated Mindanao lawmakers for supposedly attempting to bribe him on behalf of a cigarette company.

"Actually that's really a matter of Cabinet conversation. However, since you have brought it out, he simply was saying – he was not berating Mindanao politicians – he was simply saying that in time past, there was a certain attempt to influence him financially," Abella said.

Panelo later told reporters that Duterte, in a discussion with Cabinet members on Monday night, said that Mighty Corporation sent a "package" full of money to him.

"[President Duterte] thought it was wine but when Bong Go, Special Assistant to the President, opened it, he saw it was full of cash. So he ordered it returned to the sender. They were able to catch them in the airplane," Panelo said in a text message to reporters.

In an ambush interview after a Palace event, Duterte clarified that the incident happened when he was still mayor. 

"When I was mayor, wala naman sinabi basta iniwan lang, may hiningi, pabor, sabi ko, 'I am not into it' pero 'pag tindig niya may naiwan doon...Akala ko, kung bote tatanggapin ko, hindi naman ako umiinom eh, eh 'di binibigay ko lang. Pero noong tiningnan ng aide ko, pera. Sabi ko ihabol mo kung saan 'yang gagong 'yan so nahabol niya sa eroplano mismo, sa Davao," said Duterte.

(When I was mayor, they didn't say anything but someone just left something, they asked for a favor, I said, "I am not into it." But when they left, something was left behind....I thought, if it's a bottle, I'll accept. I don't drink anyway, so I'll just give it away. But when my aide looked inside, there was money. I said, "Run after that fool," so he was able to reach the person in the Davao airport.)

Mighty Corporation denied any involvement in an attempt to bribe Duterte.

Duterte also spoke of another gift, supposedly a gun, that was given to him last Christmas.

"I said there was a Christmas gift, it was a gun, during, last Christmas, sabi ko hindi ko tinanggap (I said I didn't receive it)," said the President.

'Watch DOJ'

Until the President's clarification late Tuesday afternoon, there was some confusion over when the alleged bribery try happened. Reporters asked Abella about this during the briefing but he refused to give more details about the incident, saying Duterte had no intention to make the incident public. 

"He was not making a public statement; it was being discussed in the Cabinet," he said.

On whether the President ordered the arrest, charges filed, or an investigation of personalities involved in the alleged bribe try, Abella said, "Let's just say, let's watch the DOJ (Department of Justice) go ahead."

Mighty Corporation, the oldest cigarette maker in the country, was founded in 1945 by Chinese immigrant Wong Chu King. It is owned and operated by his sons Alexander and Caesar Wongchuking. Some news articles identify retired general Edilberto Adan as Mighty Corporation's president.

Mighty Corporation has yet to respond to Rappler's request for comment on the allegation, as of posting.

The Bureau of Customs (BOC) had said that it was mulling a P1-billion tax evasion case against Mighty Corporation for alleged failure to pay that amount in excise taxes.  The BOC had said that it intends to suspend the company's import accreditation over findings that it smuggled cigarettes into the country, according to a Philippine Star report.

Abella reiterated the President's commitment to fight corruption in government, and warned individuals and groups against making similar bribery attempts. "They should be scared because the full force of the law will come down on them," he said.

On Monday, Duterte and Cabinet members discussed the long-awaited smoking ban executive order. If signed with the revisions ordered by Duterte, the EO will ban smoking indoors as well as in outdoor public areas. Duterte is set to sign the EO on Tuesday. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.