Binay law firm asks SC to stop probe of bank accounts

EXCLUSIVE - By Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

The law firm that has been dragged into the controversy involving allegations of corruption against Vice-President Jejomar Binay and his family has gone up to the Supreme Court (SC) in an effort to stop government's reported examination of its bank accounts over suspected money laundering activities, and secure an order declaring all records and information obtained from this examination as "inadmissible" in any proceeding.

In a 44-page petition for certiorari and prohibition filed last March 11, the Subido Pagente Certeza Mendoza and Binay Law Offices (SPCMB Law), the law firm representing the vice-president and one of his close allies and alleged dummy, businessman Antonio Tiu, urged the high court to stop the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) from proceeding with its examination and scrutiny of SPCMB Law's bank accounts. SPCMB Law asked the high court to declare unconstitutional the Anti-Money Laundering Act, in so far as it allows the examination of bank accounts "in any way related to a money laundering offense" without giving notice to the respondent(s).

SPCMB Law, where the vice-president's daughter, Makati City Representative Mar-len Abigail Binay, is a partner on leave, is crying "political harassment" -- a line employed by the Binay camp for months now amid controversies hounding the family and their associates involving the allegedly overpriced P2.7-billion Makati City Hall Building 2 and other city projects, the so-called 350-hectare "Hacienda Binay" estate, and the Boy Scouts of the Philippines-Alphaland joint project in Makati City where the vice-president allegedly received at least P200-million in kickbacks, among others.

SPCMB Law argued that its rights to privacy and due process have been violated by the AMLC and Court of Appeals (CA), as well as its lawyer-client privilege. The AMLC petition for the examination of the law firm's bank accounts was filed with the appellate court, which subsequently granted it with "grave abuse of discretion," SPCMB stressed.

The petition downplayed the following grounds that it had identified as bases for the AMLC's application for the examination of its bank accounts:

- that Vice-President Jejomar Binay committed the crime of plunder and Mr. Antonio Tiu, through the latter's corporations, acted as a front or dummy for him;

- that one of the partners of the law firm is the daughter of the vice-president;

- that another partner in the law firm, Atty. Martin Subido, is the corporate secretary and general counsel of Tiu; and

- both Vice-President Binay and Tiu are clients of SPCMB Law.

AMLC intends to use the bank examination "as a tool" to establish a link that would "form the chain of testimony to convict its clients" the law firm claimed.

Aside from SPCMB Law, the AMLC's plea also covered the bank accounts of Vice-President Binay; his wife, Elenita; son and Makati Mayor Jejomar Erwin "Junjun" Binay; Rep. Binay; and several others.

The vice-president and Mayor Junjun Binay are facing plunder charges in connection with the allegedly anomalous Makati City Hall Building 2. Mrs. Elenita Binay, herself a former mayor of Makati City, faces graft charges stemming from another allegedly overpriced project: the purchase of hospital beds at the Ospital ng Makati.

Tiu, who has claimed ownership of the so-called "Hacienda Binay" in Rosario, Batangas now faces a P73.34-million tax evasion case; his brother, James, and James' wife, Ann Loraine, also face a separate P39-million tax case.

A MATTER OF RIGHT

While it concedes that Section 11 of Republic Act (RA) No. 9160, also known as the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001, "does not specifically provide said right [to due process]" and "does not provide any remedy... to contest the application and subsequent issuance of an order granting application to examine bank accounts," SPCMB Law insisted that these do not mean it is not entitled to the said right and relief.

SPCMB Law assailed the CA for refusing its request for copies of the AMLC's Ex-parte Application for the Issuance of an Order Allowing Inquiry into or Examination of Bank Accounts, as well as the appellate court's "arbitrary, whimsical, and capricious" resolution granting the plea.

The law firm also stressed that the "general warrant" accorded by the CA to AMLC would compromise SPCMB's lawyer-client privilege as it wil "reveal business transactions, client fees, and charges, as well as funds that are held for its clients."

The appellate court, through Presiding Justice Andres Reyes, Jr., informed SPCMB Law on February 27 that it may not accede to the request because of the "strict confidentiality" of petitions of this nature, as mandated under the Anti-Money Laundering Act.

"SPCMB Law is a general professional partnership whose members are all part of the Philippine Bar. It performs legal services for its clients, which includes, among others, the creation and/or acquisition of appropriate business vehicles to suit their needs, with the incidental services where its members act as incorporators and/or handles funds in-trust for the clients.

"SPCMB Law has received information that envelopes and boxes bearing its name were being carried out of banks where SPCMB Law's accounts are being kept, thereby indicating that respondent AMLC has already started with its unlawful examination of petitioner SPCMB Law's bank accounts," the petition read.

Aside from arguing that the AMLC and CA are resorting to a "fishing expedition," the law firm also said the Anti-Money Laundering Act itself "exempts lawyers... from the legal duty to 'report covered and suspicious transactions.'"

"The nature of the lawyer-client relationship prohibits petitioner SPCMB Law from disclosing matters that are revealed or otherwise made known to them by its clients," the petition read.

POLITICAL HARASSMENT

SPCMB Law claimed that the series of controversies against the Binays and the AMLC's move to seek the CA's permission to undertake the inquiry and scrutiny of its bank accounts are part of a "concerted action" aimed at destroying Vice-President Binay's 2016 presidential bid. However, the petition failed to identify who are behind this alleged plot, and its supposed details.

"The pattern of harassment continues up to the present. Petitioner SPCMB Law is now made a target by respondent AMLC on the simplistic allegation that the vice-president and Mr. Tiu are its clients and because the daughter of the vice-president is a partner, on leave, in the firm.

"It is the intention of [AMLC] to prove that a case of plunder exists by locating the funds that are the fruits of the crime and linking the same to the vice-president. [AMLC] seeks to do this by examining the bank accounts of [SPCMB Law] and hopefully discover a substantial fund whose sources are 'suspicious' and attribute them to the vice-president," the petition read.

As an urgent relief, SPCMB Law urged the high court to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to immediately halt the AMLC's examination of its bank accounts, and stop the AMLC and CA from "using, citing, divulging or in any manner invoking" any and all information already obtained pertaining to the law firm's bank accounts, and thereby declare "any and all information, data, records, or transactions obtained through this unlawful examination are deemed inadmissible in any and all proceedings."

All eyes on the SC now, as the public awaits its action on SPCMB's petition, considering that such action may also impact on the other individuals and entities covered by the AMLC's scrutiny, including the Binays.