Disgraced immigration commissioners accepted bribe from gaming tycoon: Senator Gordon

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Evidence is strong against two former Bureau of Immigration officials alleged with taking P50 million in bribe from a Chinese gaming tycoon, said Richard Gordon, chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee.

The Senate committee has yet to complete its hearing but "all elements" at this time point to the guilt of immigration deputy commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles, said Gordon. The two have since resigned from their posts.

"Kinuha nila yung pera, that's bribery, Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (they took the money, that's bribery, Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act)," Gordon told CNN Philippines late Monday of his initial assessment.

"This is a travesty of the highest order… talagang makita mo ang taas-taas, dalawang commissioner, isang dating general involved dito sa ganito (You'll see two high commissioners, one former general involved here)," Gordon said.

Argosino and Robles faced the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on Monday. They are accused of taking P50 million from gaming tycoon Jack Lam in exchange for the release of over 1,300 illegal Chinese workers who were arrested from Lam's casino in Clark, Pampanga.

Also read: Chinese nationals file counter-affidavit, claim they are victims of illegal recruitment

The Blue Ribbon Committee is tasked with investigating cases involving public officials and government employees, and other matters of national interest.

Gordon said the two commissioners degraded the positions they held when they showed up in a meeting on November 26 with Lam's group on the invitation of former Chief Supt. Wally Sombero at the City of Dreams casino in Parañaque.

"I have to be very frank, because napaka-basic ng mga tanong at mukhang talagang stupid 'yung reaction ng mga 'yan ha. Sumunod-sunod sila, pinapabayaan nila 'yung dignidad ng pagka-commissioner nila," Gordon said in the interview with CNN Philippines.

Conflicting Statements

Sombero is accused by Argosino, Robles, and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre of being the middleman in the alleged attempts by Lam to bribe them.

However, Gordon felt that Monday's first Senate hearing on the alleged multi-million bribery scandal at the Bureau of Immigration may have brought out more questions than answers.

During the hearing, Argosino recounted that Sombero would go in and out of the room during the November 26 meeting, at first carrying two bags, then later on, three more bags.

Gordon hit Argosino for flip-flopping on whether they knew the bags contained millions of pesos.

"Alam mo na pera yung laman (Did you know it was containing money)?" Gordon asked the immigration official.

"May idea na po ako (I just have an idea)," Argosino replied.

"Alam mo o hindi (Do you know or not)? Do not insult the intelligence of the Senate," Gordon said.

It was only then that Argosino admitted the bags contained money, and that he took home some P28 million to serve as evidence against Lam's group.

"Tinago niyo yung pera sa bahay (You brought the money home)?" Gordon asked. "As evidence, your honor," Argosino replied.

Robles said he kept the P20 million, while Sombero took the P2 million.

Both Argosino and Robles maintained they took the money in an entrapment operation as part of their investigation of corruption in the agency.

However, at the hearing, former Bureau of Immigration intelligence chief, retired General Charles Calima, had a different version.

Calima said Sombero called him to report that Argosino and Robles' were extorting money from Lam's group in exchange for the release of Lam's Chinese workers.

Calima said he conducted counter-intelligence operations and received P18 million from Argosino and Robles, which he kept to serve as evidence.

"Hindi ko na po binuksan yun, hindi ko na tiningan yung laman dahil I was already happy na napasakamay ko yung ebidensya (I did not open it anymore, I did not look at what it contains because I was already happy to have the evidence)," Calima said.

Prior to this meeting with the commissioners, Lam and his group met with Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre in another meeting facilitated by Sombero at the Shangri-La hotel in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.

Aguirre earlier told the media that Sombero offered him P100 million monthly to serve as Lam's protector.

"Matagal nang walang nag-aalaga kay Jack Lam and he (Sombero) told me, 'Puwede ba na ang Secretary of Justice ang mag-ninong kay Jack Lam?' (No one has been protecting Jack Lam for so long, and Sombero told me, 'Can the Justice Secretary serve as Jack Lam's protector?')," Aguirre told the hearing, recalling his meeting with Lam's group.

Senate to summon Sombero, Lam

Sombero is expected to appear in the next Senate hearing on February 7.

Sombero is now in Hong Kong for a medical checkup. He filed on December 16 a graft case against Argosino and Robles before the Ombudsman.

The Senate also plans to summon Lam.

Immigration officials said Lam has left the country for Hong Kong, days after the raid of his casino on November 24 which led to the arrest of illegal Chinese workers there.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Lam's arrest on December 3. He later said he is open to Lam returning to the Philippines if he pays the requisite taxes.

Also read: Jack Lam charged for alleged violation of anti-dummy law

Pagcor 'chasing' P14B from Lam

The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) told the Senate hearing that Lam's online gambling business has no license, and is therefore, illegal.

Lam's licenses only cover casino, junket and phone betting, Arnel Ignacio, Pagcor assistant vice president for community relations and social services, told the Senate.

Gordon said the Senate should find out how long Lam's illegal business has been operating.

Aguirre told the hearing that Lam's alleged illegal business(es) had been operating "for more than 10 years and they are not paying a single centavo of tax to the government."

Ignacio also told the Senate that Lam owes the government almost P14 billion from his legal casino operations.

But in an interview with CNN Philippines' The Source Tuesday, Ignacio said it is more accurate to say Pagcor is "chasing" the P13.9 billion.

A binding contract signed by Pagcor and Lam in 1999 allows the businessman to pay the government only one percent of his earnings from his operations.

Ignacio said Lam pioneered gaming operations in the country, and the government entered the said agreement with Lam then to attract investors. Ignacio called it a "sweetheart deal," because it is the only businessman with such agreement with the government.

But today, Lam's casino in Clark should be paying the government 10 percent, like the other casinos in the area, he said.

"It's really a difficult challenge for Pagcor because he has a contract," Ignacio said. "It is on paper. Buhay yung kontrata niya eh (His contract exists)."

Gordon promised the Senate would soon pass a new legislation to correct the corrupt practices at the Bureau of Immigration.

CNN Philippines' Senior Correspondent Ruth Cabal and Digital Producer Eimor Santos contributed to this report.