Suspicious cash trail exposes 'worst' of bureaucracy: Gordon says in POGO hearing

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 05 2020 03:02 PM | Updated as of Mar 05 2020 05:39 PM

Suspicious cash trail exposes 'worst' of bureaucracy: Gordon says in POGO hearing 1
A photo projected on screen shows bags full of money as officials from various government agencies attend the senate inquiry on money laundering, crimes, and other illegal activities associated with the operation of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) in the country, held in Pasay City on March 05, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- Looking into millions of dollars in "suspicious" foreign currency inflows months after they happened is "bureaucracy at its worst form," a senator leading an investigation on POGOs told monetary authorities Thursday.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the Anti-Money Laundering Council looked into the transfers in the first quarter of this year when they happened from January to March of the previous year, Sen. Richard Gordon said.

The money -- $336 million, HK$ 215 million and 2.7 million yen -- were brought in via the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Gordon said, citing AMLC records. These have a combined peso amount of P1 billion.

"This is bureaucracy at its worst form," Gordon said.

"You defeat the purpose of the law. Almost 890 transactions, walang ginagawa? Nagastos na yung pera, nakaikot na sa buong mundo yung pera," he said.

(You defeat the purpose of the law. Almost 890 transactions yet you did nothing? The money was spent, moved across the world.)

Philippine law requires those entering the Philippines to declare amounts in excess of $10,000 to the Bureau of Customs.

Customs officials are required to submit the declaration forms to AMLC monthly, within 10 days after the end of every month, AMLC Executive Director Mel Georgie Racela told the panel.

"We do not have any authority to arrest them or seize the cash. They are just subject to further investigation should they violate other existing laws," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said this practice "defeats the purpose" of the Anti-Money Laundering Act.

"What happens is these are reported and that's the end of it because of our bureaucracy," he said.

"Hundreds of millions can be spent and transmitted within a few seconds and it takes us a few months? I think something is wrong with that," he added.

The process takes months because "intelligence information cannot be shared without validating some facts," Racela said.

"We cannot establish money laundering if we cannot establish the unlawful activity," he said.

Gordon said frequent carriers of large amounts of cash should have at least been questioned by the AMLC.

The law has a "suspicious transaction provision" to allow authorities to immediately investigate individuals bringing in huge amounts of cash, Drilon said.

If the AMLC fails to remedy this kind of bureaucracy, it will become "toothless" against "illicit money" and "criminals profiting from drugs," Gordon said.

Aside from the P1 billion cash that entered the Philippines in the first quarter of 2019, some $633 million (P32 billion) cash "suspiciously" entered the country from September 2019 to March 2020, according to Customs data.