SEN. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, yesterday said 47 individuals brought in $447 million, or roughly P22.69 billion, from September 2019 to February 2020 in what is seen as a possible grand-scale, money-laundering scheme through Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) outlets.
In a privilege speech, Gordon said the Bureau of Customs (BOC) brought the transactions to the attention of the Central Bank, the Department of Finance, and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) as early as September last year.
He said the agencies apparently did nothing to track the money.
“Money laundering is often associated with gambling. It appears that the relevant authorities chose to turn a blind eye to the nefarious activities that come with the prevalence of POGO in our country in exchange for a few billions in tax revenues or perhaps because of the pastillas or any other form it may take,” Gordon said.
He said the purposes declared by the people who brought in the money include foreign exchange, investments, travel and casino, business, travel, while there were some who did not even give any reason.
“Pwede pang-destabilize ‘yan, ang laking halaga niyan (It can destabilize the government, it is a big amount of money. We can easily be destabilized with that kind of money),” he added.
Gordon said he will try to establish if the monies were “washed” using POGO hubs when he opens an investigation into the issue on Thursday, March 7.
At the House, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the House committee on ways and means, disclosed that four syndicates were behind the entry into the country of some P28.6 billion in cash from December to February.
The groups, Salceda said, were allegedly involved either in POGO operations, illegal drug activities, or terrorist activities in the past three months.
In a closed-door briefing with officials from the BOC and the AMLC, Salceda’s panel was informed that one of the syndicates is the “Rodriguez group” while the three others came from Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China.
The other officials who briefed the panel were from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), PNP-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG), Bureau of Immigration (BI), National Intelligence Coordinating Council (NICA), and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
Salceda said he will open his own inquiry on the reported money-laundering activities linked to POGOs.
The BOC, in a report submitted to the Department of Finance last January, said that around $200.24 million, or P10.18 billion, were brought in by the Rodriguez group, while a Chinese group sneaked in $167.97 million, equivalent to about P8.54 billion, from December 2019 to January 2020.
Gordon said the top five individuals who brought in cash, which were placed in suitcases flown in through commercial flights, were an “ES Rodriguez” (Filipino) who was recorded to have 45 transactions amounting to $34.6 million or P1.7 billion; “JG Rodriguez” (Filipino), with $32.6 million or P1.6 billion in 40 transactions; a “Mr. Chun” with $26.6 million or P1.3 billion in eight transactions; a “Mr. Sheung” with $24 million or P1.2 billion in seven transactions; and a “Mr. Kim” with $21.6 million or P1 billion in seven transactions.
Gordon said the individuals flew in from Hong Kong and Singapore.
Gordon said a “Simon John y Gangani Rodriguez” was apprehended by the BOC at NAIA Terminal 2 when he brought in $700,000 in his hand hand-carry luggage upon arrival from Singapore last September 26.
Five other Filipinos and four Singaporeans identified with Rodriguez were also apprehended.
Gordon said Rodriguez, while investigated, was not jailed.
“[This is] with impunity, malakas ang loob ko kaya ko lahat ‘yan … Kaya namin ang airport meron na kaming tropa dyan. Meron pulis ‘yan sigurado, meron malaking tao, may escort (This is with impunity. He is very courageous because he knows he can have his way out…
We can sneak through the airports because we have backers there. I’m sure there are policemen behind him, big personalities, who escort him),” Gordon added.
Gordon said the money brought in can be bought houses in the country for use by POGO workers, like in a video footage showing POGO workers being housed in an expensive subdivision in Paranaque City.
“It’s very organized operation – hiring buses, hiring cars, hiring vans, renting homes,” he said.
Based on information, Gordon said 400,000 POGO workers in the country occupy some 450,000 square meters of office spaces.
“It is creeping invasion… I’m not being Sinophobic. I’m trying to express some concern on why there is no seeming regulation and effort to locate these people… This is just Manila, we don’t know what’s going on in other areas and that’s why we really have to find out what’s going on,” he said.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said the money-laundering activities could have been all due to POGO outlets.
“Obviously, this is happening because we have POGOs. If we don’t allow POGOs, these incidents will not happen would you agree Mr. President?” Drilon said.
Sen. Joel Villanueva, Senate labor committee chair, said based on records of the labor department, there are 123,056 POGO workers in the country, while Pagcor said there are more than 97,000, and other agencies show there are 108,914.
AFP, PNP ESCORTS?
The Department of Interior and Local Government and the Armed Forces (AFP) are looking into the reported involvement of policemen and soldiers in the smuggling of millions of dollars into the country.
In a January 29 report to Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero said the “Rodriguez” and “Chinese” syndicates smuggled the monies through the NAIA with the help of AFP, PNP and airport police escorts.
In a phone interview, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said he has directed the PNP leadership to coordinate with the BOC for the identification of the erring policemen.
Año said he was not furnished a copy of the BOC report.
“It already came out in the media so we may have difficulty finding these people. Of course, I will not allow this (malpractice), I will not allow any PNP officer, personnel to be involved on that, we’ll go after them,” said Año.
“If there are only names, immediately I can conduct an investigation and put these people into custodial investigation because this is a serious matter. As of now, we have no information, I learned this only through media. But you know, we are not going to allow this,” said Año.
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgardo Arevalo said the military has no direct information of the soldiers’ involvement in the illegal activity. Like Año, Arevalo said the AFP learned of the crime only through media.
Arevalo said the AFP will coordinate with concerned agencies “to gather sufficient information so that we can conduct our own verification.”
“For the record, we tell you that we are not going to allow personnel of the AFP to be involved in such activity,” said Arevalo. – With Wendell Vigilia and Victor Reyes