Aguirre denies links to ‘pastillas scheme’

Robie de Guzman   •   September 22, 2020   •   217

MANILA, Philippines – Former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on Tuesday denied allegations that he is the protector of the group behind the so-called pastillas scheme in the Bureau of Immigration (BI).

During the resumption of the Senate probe on the issue, Aguirre refuted media practitioner Ramon Tulfo Jr.’s claims, saying it was only fueled by “vendetta and dirty politics.”

Aguirre said Tulfo’s accusations against him might be connected to the time when he was still DOJ secretary and he denied the latter’s request to consolidate his libel cases.

Aguirre served as Secretary of Justice from 2016 to 2018.

In March this year, Tulfo accused Aguirre of involvement in the pastillas scheme after he placed the father and son tandem of Maynardo and Red Mariñas to head the visa upon arrival system in the country. Tulfo also claimed that a chopper regularly delivers kickback from the scheme to Aguirre’s hometown in Mulanay, Quezon.

The former secretary, however, denied Tulfo’s allegations.

“Alam mo, kapag ikaw sumulat ng anuman o mag-akusa ng anuman na wala kang ebidensya, malicious yan, Tulfo!” Aguirre said during the hearing.

“Kung totoo ‘yang sinasabi mo, hindi ba yan Mr. Tulfo na dapat yan ay ililhim mo? Para walang makakitang ibang tao. Pero kabaliktaran, ginagawa mo akong isang istupidong Department of Justice secretary na ipagwawadwaran ko pa ang mga panunuhol sa akin,” he added.

He also reasoned that he already resigned from the post when the issue surfaced.

“As such, I am bereft of power or authority to control, much less head, a syndicate operating in the BI,” he said.

Aside from Aguirre and Tulfo, whistleblower Allison Chiong also attended the probe.

He told senators that high-ranking officials including those in the travel control and enforcement unit and terminal heads at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport who are allegedly involved in the scheme have yet to face charges.

“Sa immigration po kasi, itong term na boss, napaka parang broad… Oh halimbawa ah, ‘sabi ng mga boss, i-check niyo daw muna sa loob kasi nagmamanman ang NBI diyan. So lahat ang checking sa loob. Wala po dito ‘yun. Wala dito ‘yung mga boss,” he said.

Nineteen Immigration officers allegedly linked to the pastillas scheme are currently facing charges filed by the National Bureau of Investigation at the Office of the Ombudsman.

The modus was called pastillas, derived from a Filipino sweet and sticky dessert, because the bribe money that some personnel receive were concealed inside rolled up papers.

The scheme allegedly takes advantage of Chinese casino high-rollers and offshore gaming workers who wish to be escorted to dodge the immigration screening process for a fee.

According to Senator Risa Hontivers, chairperson of the Senate committee on women, children family relations and gender equality that has been conducting the probe, the panel will study recommendations to implement a reshuffle in the Immigration bureau, and suspend officers who are facing charges as well as those involved in the visa upon arrival system. – RRD (with details from Correspondent Harlene Delgado)

PH Immigration law in dire need of update to stop corruption – BI chief

Robie de Guzman   •   November 11, 2020

MANILA, Philippines – Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Jaime Morente on Wednesday expressed his belief that the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 is “very old” and is in dire need of updating to solve the alleged corrupt activities in the bureau.

“The Philippine Immigration Act is a very old law, 80 years old to be exact,” Morente said in a statement.

“I have talked to the President and raised this concern to him,” he further stated.

Morente said that since the law was enacted during a time when there were no international flights yet entering and leaving the country, “many of its provisions are already outdated and inappropriate already.”

The BI chief said updating the law would “answer salary woes, remove systemic issues, plug loopholes in policies, update fines and penalties, ensure division of power, and confer to the Commissioner the proper disciplinary powers.”

The proposal to revisit the country’s immigration law was pushed following corruption issues allegedly involving some of the bureau’s personnel.

More than 80 officials and employees of the Immigration bureau are facing investigation and charges before the Office of the Ombudsman over allegations of accepting bribes in exchange for escorting Chinese and other foreign nationals who wish to dodge the immigration screening process in airports.

The scheme was called “pastillas,” named after a local soft milk candy, because the bribe money that some personnel receive are concealed inside rolled up papers resembling the dessert.

According to Morente, they have already implemented measures to address corruption in the bureau.

“The short-term solution is relieve all those found to have been involved in corrupt practices, hence we relieved all names implicated in the Pastillas issue, and implemented a one strike policy for anyone who tries to follow suit,” he said.

“The medium-term solution is reorganizing the system,” he added as he revealed that the supervision of the bureau’s Travel Control and Intelligence Unit and the Border Control and Intelligence Unit have been transferred under a different division to “add layers of checks and balances.”

Morente said the move will “serve as a sort of audit to the actions of those in the Port Operations Division, and dismantles any semblance of a central control of possible illegal activities.”

He, however, stressed that the real and long-term solution is the updating of the Philippine Immigration Act.

“We can remove people again and again, but the loopholes in the law remain. Quick wins may cure some symptoms in the anti- corruption drive but a responsive new Immigration law may yet cure systemic problems that breed corruption,” he said.

The BI chief earlier lamented that under the existing law, he has no disciplinary powers over his personnel, as “the power to hire and fire rests with the Secretary of Justice.”

The Immigration bureau is an attached agency of the Department of Justice.

Morente said the proposal to amend the Philippine Immigration law is already in Congress and called for its immediate passage.

“We thank our lawmakers for the support in our move to modernize the bureau so that once and for all we can rid of systemic issues that remain because of outdated policies,” he said.

PH Immigration to impose one-strike policy vs corruption

Robie de Guzman   •   November 5, 2020

MANILA, Philippines – The Bureau of Immigration (BI) on Thursday said it will implement a one-strike policy against its erring personnel as part of its efforts to fight corruption.

Under the one-strike policy, erring personnel who are the subject of complaints and investigations will be relieved from their posts immediately, the BI said.

The measure comes after several Immigration officials were subjected to investigation over their alleged involvement in the “pastillas” bribery scheme which allegedly takes advantage of Chinese nationals who wish to be escorted to dodge the immigration screening process for a fee.

Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente said he has ordered the BI’s newly-reconstituted Board of Discipline (BOD) to “carefully assess complaints and reports against erring personnel” and to “immediately recommend to the Department of Justice (DOJ) the filing of administrative case” if they find merit.

The BI said that since 2016, one hundred thirty-one (131) personnel have been suspended, dismissed, and dropped from the rolls for various offenses.

“We do not tolerate corruption amongst our ranks,” Morente said.

“In support of the President’s intensified drive against corruption, we have beefed up our Board of Discipline (BOD) to focus on cleaning up the Bureau,” he added.

The BOD is currently headed by lawyer Ronaldo Ledesma, who previously served as the Bureau’s OIC Commissioner and OIC Deputy Commissioner. Five additional lawyers have also been assigned by the DOJ to the BOD.

The BI chief earlier lamented the bureau’s lack of disciplinary powers over its own employees, noting that its set up under the current immigration law is merely recommendatory to the DOJ.

“If administrative control was to be given to the BI, if we find someone involved in improper activities in the morning, we can immediately implement a suspension in the afternoon,” he said.

Morente also urged the public to report any illegal activities to the BI’s hotline +632 86452400 or via its Facebook page.

Whistle blower says ‘pastillas’ scam masterminds have ‘contact’ in Ombudsman’s office

Aileen Cerrudo   •   October 6, 2020

Pastillas scam whistleblower, Immigration Officer II Jeffrey Dale Ignacio

Alleged masterminds of the money-making “pastillas” scheme at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) claimed to have a contact in the Office of the Ombudsman, according to the new whistleblower, Immigration Officer II Jeffrey Dale Ignacio.

During the hearing on Tuesday (October 6), Ignacio admitted to having been a member of the “pastillas gang” and tagged former deputy commissioner Marc Red Mariñas as one of the alleged leaders of the operation who purportedly has a “contact” in the Office of the Ombudsman.

Ang naalala ko po ay sinabi ni Sir Red na may contact daw sila sa Ombudsman. Sabi pa ni Sir Red, sana daw matapos bago ang filing of candidacy (I remember Sir Red telling us that they have a contact in the [Office of the Ombudsman]. Sir Red also said that hopefully, [the investigation] would be over before the filing of candidacy),” he said.

Ignacio said he was forced to join the group in 2017 as a foot soldier like the first witness, Allison Chiong. He also confirmed Chiong’s statement that they would receive P5,000 to P20,000 per week for the “VIP Treatment” of Chinese nationals who paid bribes dubbed as “pastillas” because the money given to immigration officers were rolled in white bond paper similar to a Filipino milk candy of the same name.

He also revealed that Mariñas’ lawyers told them not to answer the subpoena submitted by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). NBI legal assistance division Atty. Joshua Capiral was also tagged to have been involved in bribing them in exchange for being excluded from charges.

Capiral was arrested by the NBI last September 21 during an entrapment operation for accepting bribe from immigration officers allegedly involved in the “pastillas scheme”.

Meanwhile, former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II denied the claims of columnist Ramon Tulfo that he assigned Mariñas’ father, Maynardo Mariñas as Special Operations and Communications head at the Bureau of Immigration (BI). Aguirre said he only assigned Red Mariñas as Port Operations Division chief.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, chair of the committee leading the investigation, asked Aguirre if he knew about Maynardo Mariñas’ position.

“Hindi nga po nagma-micromanage, hindi ko po alam iyan. Wala naman pong conflict of interest diyan (I don’t micromanage, I know nothing. There is no conflict of interest there),” he said.

Hontiveros also said Senate President Vicente Sotto III has already approved the provision of legislative immunity to Ignacio while four individuals who were subpoenaed for their alleged involvement in the scheme were cited in contempt for not attending the hearing. AAC (with reports from Harlene Delgado)

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