“It was terrible news.”
This was how Bangladesh Ambassador to the Philippines John Gomes described how he felt upon learning that $100 million had been stolen from his country’s central bank and funneled through local banks, remittance companies, and, ultimately, to casinos.
Gomes sat down with CNN Philippines’ Chief Correspondent Pia Hontiveros on Wednesday’s (March 16) episode of News.PH to talk about the money laundering issue.
He explained the money given to the reserve is mainly from the remittances of overseas workers and from garments workers.
Gomes mentioned that Bangladesh was second in the world when it comes to the production of ready-made garments.
He said there were millions of Bangladeshi employed by the garments industry and “it is their money.” Gomes added part of the money was kept in the U.S. Federal Reserve.
“It was really shocking that hard-earned money which belonged to our middle class and lower middle class peoples landing in casinos over here,” he said.
Gomes explained that Bangladesh had 60 million more people than the Philippines despite being half its size.
He said, “We don’t have gold mines, we don’t have oil, so we depend on our people and the people work very hard.”
He added it was sad that this happened in the Philippines with whom Bangladesh has such great bilateral relations.
He said, “The Philippines was among the first five countries to recognize Bangladesh.”
He explained that his country had its War of Independence in 1971 and in 1972, the Philippines had already recognized Bangladesh.
Gomes said, “Our relationship is very emotional in nature – and then this happens. So the whole country over there in Bangladesh is thinking, ‘Oh, the money went to the Philippines. It’s gone to the casino.’ It really hurt me a lot.”
Gomes, however, said he felt that he was getting enough help from the government.
“That is the best part of it,” he said.
Gomes was invited to the Senate hearing on the money laundering scam and met Sen. TG Guingona, who is the chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.
He added he was given a seat in the gallery and was told by Guingona that the aim of the Senate investigation was to get back Bangladesh’s money.
‘There was a lapse’
Gomes admitted that he does not have extensive knowledge of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), but knew that they were carrying out their own investigation.
However, he said, “They (AMLC) had given out a freeze order on February 8 to Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC), but it was not carried out. And on February 9, all the money was already taken out. I think there was a lapse there.”
He explained it was different in Sri Lanka where $20 million was saved because “they were told to stop payment and it was frozen.”
Gomes said he was surprised that the AMLC did not have power over the casinos.
He said, “The casino is in the Philippines, and if you have all kinds of backdoor money coming to the casinos… and this is all brought into the country – so how do you account for millions of dollars that would come out to the people? It’s not that the casino money is going to be taken out of the country, but what about the money that will be floated in the country? How do you account for that?”
During the Senate hearing, Gomes said: “I feel, as an outsider, there was a coverup. You can understand whenever the relevant questions being asked by the senators to the RCBC management, Mr. Lorenzo (Tan) was also there, invoking the bank secrecy act… They could not get anything out of Mr. Lorenzo.”
When asked if RCBC bank manager Maia Santos-Deguito could have done it by herself, Gomes said: “I don’t think so. I don’t believe a manager of any bank in the world could handle millions of dollars which suddenly appeared in some accounts, which now they say are fictitious accounts… I don’t think, anywhere in the world, the CEO or a president of bank would allow a manager to deal with huge amounts.”
Gomes said that Deguito had been working in the banking industry for 18 years and that she was supposed to know the protocol when handling large sums.
He said, “I feel there is a big gap over there between the management and Ms. Deguito.”
What happens next
As for the next steps being taken by Bangladesh’s government, Gomes said: “The money was kept in the U.S. Federal Reserve in New York, I have learned that the FBI is already here in the Philippines to investigate. We are going to wait for the Senate hearing. I was told that very soon, criminal charges would be filed; there will be legal actions, definitely.”
Gomes also said he was aware that the investigation could have an effect on the image of Philippine banks.