They say elections always perk up the Philippine economy. With the timely infusion of one big foreign “investment,” there’s no way to stop an economic uptick in this election year, for instance.
Here’s the thing: The bulk of the $81 million stolen last month from the central bank of Bangladesh never left the Philippines, it’s becoming increasingly clear; if that’s the case, then where did the money go?
Some gossipy local bankers are claiming that the Bangladeshi money was never meant to leave the Philippines in the first place. And that all that moolah will be used as part of some lucky politician’s war chest in the coming May 9 elections.
The timing of the theft of the Bangladesh foreign reserves, after all, is suspicious. The four “fictitious” accounts were opened in May last year at the RCBC Jupiter, Makati branch with the bare minimum of $500 each for a dollar account, only to go dormant for nine months before they suddenly received the entire amount from four commercial banks in the US—almost exactly two months before the elections.
The senators who started an investigation of the massive heist last Tuesday learned that a big portion of the amount, around P600 million, was physically transferred from the bank in early February, apparently before local authorities wised up to the crime. Now, the bankers are saying, who would require such a huge infusion of cash—and why would it be converted into Philippine pesos if it was going to be spirited out of the country anyway?
No, the banking folk insist. The money was supposed to stay here, even if a portion of it had reportedly been spirited away to some safe haven in Hong Kong, possibly as a commission to those who pulled off the crime.
The use of huge amounts of money in local elections, of course, is well-known. The total bill for political advertising alone in the run-up to this election, for instance, has already reached many billions of pesos, just for people seeking national office, this early.
(As one friend quipped, it’s true that the Bangladeshi money ended up in casinos. But it’s not any posh joint run or overseen by Pagcor, but in the biggest casino of them all— the 2016 elections.)
In the last presidential elections in 2010, for example, there were rumors that a local politician who died in a vehicular accident was carrying a huge amount of cash raised by some shady operators for the campaign kitty of one major candidate. When rescuers got to the scene of the fatal accident, they found the bodies, but not the cash—which was why the very real grieving that ensued was not limited to the deceased’s immediate family.
Today, the Senate resumes its investigation of the theft of Bangladeshi cash (in executive session, away from the prying eyes of media) through a complicated cyber-operation that has already been billed as the third biggest bank heist in history and the largest computer crime ever. I wonder if the politicians in the Senate will look into the angle that some of their own kind could have been the beneficiaries of the robbery—which is right now still being called a “money-laundering operation.”
If it’s true that the Bangladeshi funds were intended to make some candidate win in May, maybe it’s time we stopped calling it that. It’s just robbery on a massive scale, to pay for the ever-escalating cost of getting elected in this country.
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Speaking of laundering, the Anti-Money Laundering Council, the government agency tasked to go after those who cleanse “dirty” funds through the banking system, deserves no congratulations in the RCBC case. Not only did the AMLC fail to stop RCBC from releasing the funds to suspicious depositors, it was unable to stop the return of the money to the bank for conversion into pesos—way after all sorts of alarms and “stop payment” orders had been issued by authorities here and abroad. AMLC never even knew about the involvement of the local bank in the huge cyber-heist until the Bangladesh central bank alerted the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas about the “landing” of the $81 million in the Philippines; this, despite the fact that the huge transactions involving the RCBC four dummy dollar accounts should have raised enough red flags at the AMLC office to accessorize an anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Of course, we already know what the AMLC has been doing for the entire term of President Noynoy Aquino: from the filing of now-dismissed charges against businessman Roberto Ongpin, the impeachment trial of sacked Chief Justice Renato Corona to the use of phantom AMLC reports against Vice President Jejomar Binay, the agency has allowed itself to be conscripted as just another political weapon in the terrible arsenal of the administration.
The AMLC is useless when it comes to stopping (or even investigating) real money-laundering. As a political tool, its only competition is the Office of the Ombudsman.