MANILA, Philippines – The Senate blue ribbon committee on Thursday, March 9, cleared Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, Chinese gambling tycoon Jack Lam, and his aide, Wally Sombero, of liability in the Bureau of Immigration (BI) corruption scandal.
The incident was a case of "extortion" by immigration officers and not bribery, said committee chairperson Senator Richard Gordon, as the panel ended its probe into the controversy stemming from the arrest of 1,300 Chinese workers at the Fontana Leisure Parks and Casino in Pampanga.
This is contrary to the earlier pronouncement of the Philippine National Police and President Rodrigo Duterte, who had even ordered Lam's arrest "for the case of bribery and economic sabotage."
Gordon said the two most liable in the scam are former BI associate commissioners Michael Robles and Al Argosino – fraternity brothers of Duterte and Aguirre in the Lex Talionis Fraternity at the San Beda College of Law.
The senator said he is likely to recommend the filing of criminal charges against the two, and also the possible liability of BI Commissioner Jaime Morente and former BI intelligence chief Charles Calima Jr in the incident. (READ: P50-M extortion? Lam tried to bribe us, say immigration officials)
"Ang talagang matindi ay 'yung dalawang commissioners. Lahat ng galaw nila 'di mapaliwanag. Tagal-tagal na nila, 'di nila mapaliwanag (What's really serious is the case of the two commissioners. They could not explain their actions. It's been a while and they still could not explain it). They were following the scent of the money," Gordon told reporters.
He was referring to the November 26, 2016, meeting at a hotel in Parañaque between the two former commissioners and Sombero which lasted until the wee hours of the following day.
Argosino and Robles earlier admitted receiving P50 million from Sombero and said P2 million of the amount went to Sombero and P18 million to Calima.
No proof vs Aguirre
Prior to the meeting in Parañaque, Argosino joined Aguirre in a meeting with Sombero, Lam, and two interpreters in a private hotel room in Taguig the same day.
Despite this, Gordon said there was no proof that Aguirre was involved in the alleged acts of his fraternity brothers. At the very least, the senator said he would look into Aguirre's possible "negligence."
"Probably [I will include a] cautionary statement [in the committee report]. Negligence – it's another thing to prove that… Pag-aaralan pa (It will be studied)," he said.
The concept of command responsibility, Gordon said, does not apply to the case of Aguirre.
"Command responsibility, it's a theory, value; it's not an offense. Like in the case of Mamasapano – that you can do command responsibility because it means the chain of command ay kasama (is included)," he said.
Gordon said there is nothing wrong with a top government official meeting with Lam, who by then was already tagged in the issue. (READ: Senate BI bribery probe: 3 hard questions for Aguirre)
"Walang masama doon. He's an investor of the country. He has the right to say, 'Hinuli 'nyo tao ko eh; pagbigyan 'nyo ko; 'wag hulihin; masisira hanapbuhay ko.' It's a public place, they saw each other; they did not deny it. It was a short time. Sa tingin ko walang problema 'yon. Happens to me all the time."
(There is nothing wrong with that. He's an investor of the country. He has the right to say, "You arrested my people; give me break; don't arrest them; my business is at stake." It's a public place, they saw each other; they did not deny it. It was a short time. I think there's no problem there. Happens to me all the time.)
Lam, Sombero cleared
Since Gordon said it was a case of extortion, Sombero and Lam have no criminal liability as they did not bribe government officials.
The senator said Sombero was just a fixer, "trying to make money from both sides."
"Well, kung bribery, meron [pero] sa tingin ko (if it's bribery, there would be [criminal liability] but I think) it's extortion. I think Sombero was just trying to make money from both sides. He's not a lawyer. 'Ako mag-areglo.' Fixer; kilala ko 'yan ('I will take care of that.' Fixer; I know the kind). Big talker. What's wrong with that if he gets representation fees?" Gordon said.
As for Lam, Gordon said the gambling tycoon has no liability because he just rents out his villas at Fontana – in stark contrast to Duterte's earlier arrest order against the gambling tycoon.
"Wala ako nakikitang liability ni Jack Lam because he operates a casino, kumikita sa renters, nag-re-rent sa kanya. 'Yung mga villas malaki ang bayad doon," he said.
(I don't see any liability in Jack Lam's case because he operates a casino, he makes money from renters. Those villas earn a lot of revenues.)
At the very least, Gordon said the Department of Labor and Employment could look into Lam's role in allowing illegal Chinese workers in his villas. – 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