VITALIANO Aguirre II, former secretary of the Department of Justice (DOJ), was yesterday tagged as the alleged protector of the “pastillas” bribery scheme during a Senate hearing on the ill-effects of the flourishing Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) business to the country.
Aguirre was President Duterte’s justice secretary from 2016 to 2018.
Ramon Tulfo, who is President Duterte’s special envoy to China, told senators that Aguirre was supposedly named by immigration officer Allison Chiong as the protector of the pastillas syndicate during a meeting sometime in April last year.
Chiong had previously confirmed the existence of the modus and gave details of how it operates during a hearing of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality.
The pastillas conspiracy involved ranking officials of the Bureau of Immigration’s (BI) airport offices. The syndicate collects from as low as P10,000 to P200,000 from Chinese fugitives, casino gamblers and tourists to facilitate their seamless entry into the country.
Many of the tourists who have availed of the modus have ended up working in POGO hubs in the country.
Tulfo was at the Senate on Monday as a resource person in the fourth committee hearing into the POGO trade.
Tulfo claimed Chiong voluntarily went to his office to divulge what he knew of the illegal activities in the airports. He said he found Chiong to be a credible witness because he was part of the syndicate that operates the illegal activities.
“Base po sa sinabi sa ‘kin ni Mr. Chiong, siya po ‘yung protector ng sindikato, si former secretary Aguirre (based on what Mr. Chiong told me, he was the protector of the syndicate, former secretary Aguirre),” Tulfo said under oath.
Chiong, when asked to substantiate Tulfo’s allegation against Aguirre, replied: “I am sure na si Ramon Tulfo ay may sariling intelligence network na iko-corroborate niya ‘yan (I am sure that Ramon Tulfo has his own intelligence network which can corroborate the allegation).”
Aguirre, when asked to comment on Tulfo’s claims, denied the allegation and vowed to sue the presidential envoy.
“The charges of Ramon Tulfo are absolute lies and a complete fabrication of Tulfo. I was told that he was the only one saying that in the Senate. That even his so-called whistleblower did not say what he was accusing me of,” Aguirre said in a statement sent to reporters.
“I will again file new cases against Tulfo. Kahit saan (Anywhere). I could face anybody because I am completely innocent of his charges,” he said, noting that he had previously filed numerous libel and cyber libel cases against Tulfo before the Manila regional trial courts for his defamatory columns (not in the Malaya).
Aguirre said Tulfo merely wanted to get back at him after he refused his request when he was still the DOJ chief to consolidate the libel cases filed by the religious group Iglesia Ni Cristo against Tulfo.
Tulfo, he claimed, requested for the consolidation of the INC cases “because he was complaining of inconvenience and expenses traveling” to attend the hearings of the said cases.
Committee chairwoman Sen. Risa Hontiveros said she will invite Aguirre in the hearing next week to shed light on Tulfo’s accusations.
“At the very basic level, as a matter of fairness, we will invite former Sec Aguirre for him to explain. We cannot just dismiss this simply as hearsay because there are evidence, according to Chiong which was corroborated by Mr. Tulfo and another person and looking at the whole body, there seems to be evidence that would stand up,” Hontiveros said without giving details who the third person was.
Hontiveros also said she will direct Chiong to disclose what he knows on the alleged involvement of Aguirre.
“I believe the word ‘protector’ came from Mr. Tulfo. But just the same, Mr. Chiong’s testimony showed the link of the former justice secretary to the Marinas father and son,” she added.
Tulfo, citing confidential information, claimed Marc Red Mariñas travel to Mulanay, Quezon via helicopter at least twice a month to deliver Aguirre’s share from the pastillas bribery stunt.
Mariñas was the former head of the BI’s Port Operations Division (POD). He resigned in 2018 in preparation for his candidacy as mayor of Muntinlupa City. He, however, lost in the elections.
A photograph of Mariñas on board a yellow chopper was shown before the hearing, apparently to strengthen the accusation against him.
Mariñas, who was present during Monday’s Senate hearing, denied the allegation and said he only rode the chopper once to go to San Narciso town also in Quezon to attend its town fiesta.
“Malungkot na nadawit pa si Sec Aguirre. Inamin na ako ay nagpunta doon pero sa San Narciso, isang beses lang. They can check the manifest. Di ko alam bakit pa nadadawit si Sec Aguirre dito, tahimik na ‘yung pribadong tao. Ang naging partisipasyon lang niya ay ‘yung pagkaka-designate sa akin nung kanyang panahon (It’s sad that Sec. Aguirre is being implicated here. I admit that I went there [in Quezon on board a chopper] but that was only once. They can check the manifest. I don’t know why Sec. Aguirre is being implicated here now he is enjoying his private life. His [Aguirre’s] only participation is when he designated me [in my former job] during his time),” he said.
Mariñas was appointed head of the POD on July 2016 by Aguirre. At the same time, his father Marnardo Mariñas was appointed as head of the BI’s Special Operations Communications Unit (SOCU).
Marinas insisted said he was not aware of the pastillas scheme during his stint at the BI.
The easy entry of Chinese into the country was facilitated by Department Circular 041 issued by Aguirre in 2017 which granted the POD and SOCU the power to review, assess and prepare orders on all requests for issuance of Visas Upon Arrival (VUAs). The VUA policy started only during the incumbency of Aguirre as DOJ secretary.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvdor Panelo said Aguirre enjoys the presumption of innocence until he is proven guilty.
“I don’t know him (Aguirre) personally. We have no business dealing or official or even personal. But you know as lawyers, we always say everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” Panelo said as he dared Aguirre’s accusers to show proof to back their accusation.
Panelo said the allegation against Aguirre was “serious and the one alleging it must provide information to the proper authorities so that that can be investigated.”
He said the executive branch cannot act on the allegations against Aguirre unless there is a formal complaint or credible proof to warrant an investigation.
During the same hearing, Hontiveros bared that Mariñas failed to submit his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) for four consecutive years – 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018, to which Mariñas said that his “201” file went missing during those years.
Hontiveros said that for 2017 when Marinas was able to file his SALN, the stated amount was smaller than that of his staff’s.
She said that in the 2017 SALN of Marinas, his net worth was only P5.554 million while that of Fidel Mendoza, who holds the position of security guard 2, has a net worth of P7.9 million.
“Isa na namang misteryo bakit ganoon, mas mataas pa ang nai-file ng isang security guard (This is another mystery since a security guard has a higher net worth),” she said.
Mariñas, in an attempt to discredit the Senate whistleblower, said Chiong was suspended from work before for an administrative case.
Chiong confirmed that he was suspended for one month but said the case was “mere harassment” against him. He said it was for an incident involving the issuance of balikbayan visas and was not in any way connected to money.
Hontiveros said the pastillas scheme has been existing for years and yet the BI leadership has not done anything but reassign to other posts those who have been named to be involved.
“Pero ang mga sangkot ay nilipat-lipat lang at hindi naman talaga tinanggal sa puwesto.
Ongoing theme ang pag-recycle ng mga opisyal at hindi napapanagot sa batas. Talagang may kapit itong mga opisyal ng BI na ito, kumita ng milyun-milyon.
(But those involved were just reassigned and not really kicked out of the service. There is an ongoing theme of recycling of officials who are not punished. This really proves that these officers have backers, and that they already earned millions of pesos),” she said.
She added: “Bistong-bisto na, pero deny pa! (There is already evidence against them and yet they continue to deny) Stop the excuses.”
Sen. Ronald dela Rosa threatened to cite in contempt the BI officers who were identified by Chiong as the chat administrators of their Viber group for failing to disclose what they know of the pastillas operations.
Dela Rosa said the BI officers identified kept on denying the existence of the pastillas scheme even as there are screen shots presented by Chiong in past hearings.
Dela Rosa said the Senate will send for analysis of the PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group the mobile phones of the immigration agents to determine who really are behind the chat group. – With Jocelyn Montemayor and Ashzel Hachero