President Rodrigo Duterte did not approve of how Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol handled an attempt to bribe him with a Rolex watch. But Piñol still did a lot better, in my book, than the two immigration officials who were only forced to give up a huge amount of cash handed to them by a controversial businessman after they had been exposed.
Piñol created a social-media stir when he declared on Facebook recently that he was returning to an agri-business concern the Rolex Submariner watch worth P450,000 it had given to him as a gift. He said he believed that the package containing the expensive watch was just a small token until he opened it; he said he decided to return the bauble after he discovered that it wasn’t just an ordinary Christmas stocking-stuffer from the company, which he did not name.
Duterte said he didn’t agree with what Piñol did because he could have sold the watch and used it to buy rice. The agriculture chief, the President said, could have distributed the proceeds of the bribe to benefit a lot of needy people.
I don’t know if this was another of Duterte’s attempts at humor, the sort of statement that has his spokesmen scrambling to interpret what he really meant. But I’m pretty sure the old prosecutor would not have as easily dismissed the strange “evidence-gathering” excuse employed by two top Bureau of Immigration officials, who returned P30 million in cash supposedly given as a bribe by fugitive casino businessman Jack Lam.
I believe Deputy Commissioners Michael Robles (no relation of mine) and Al Argosino still deserve to be dismissed, tried in court and eventually jailed. I think doing so is perfectly in sync with Duterte’s campaign to weed out corrupt government officials—especially officials whose appointment papers he had signed in the short time that he’s been president.
The two BI officials’ boss, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, believes they should be fired, if the investigation that he has ordered shows Robles and Argosino guilty of accepting the bribe. And it was Aguirre who had recommended the two, who are his and the president’s “brothers” in the Lex Talionis fraternity of the San Beda law school, to Duterte to top posts in the immigration agency.
Duterte can do better than Aguirre by firing the two summarily, pending the submission of the results of the investigation, after which they should be charged in court. He can even summon Robles and Argosino and punch them, just like he said he would do to Lam himself, if the casino operator ever made the mistake of appearing before him.
I understand Aguirre’s anger. After all, it was the justice secretary who said he turned down an offer of a bribe from Lam, through an intermediary identified as former police general Wally Sombero, during a meeting with the businessman at a Metro Manila hotel.
And it was the same Sombero, still acting on Lam’s behalf, who was caught by the hotel’s CCTV cameras handing the huge sums contained in bulging paper bags to Robles and Argosino. If Aguirre doesn’t act—and fast—against his two fraternity brothers, he could be suspected of merely pretending to be clean and clandestinely sending two of his subordinates to accepting money from Lam on his behalf.
It’s really that simple.
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I’ve always figured Duterte to be a very astute politician, underneath his rough, provincial exterior. This is how the president has always caught his Manila-based critics off-balance and kept them guessing about his next moves.
But if Duterte doesn’t throw the book at the two immigration officials, he will be unnecessarily risking the famous support that he has enjoyed from the citizenry—the same people who believe that the President will not allow his subordinates to steal their taxes or to enrich themselves by making deals with corrupt businessmen like Lam. And regardless of Duterte’s own opinion about Robles and Argosino (assuming that he knows these two personally) he must understand that they have to go.
There is simply no reason to defend these two officials. They accepted a total of P50 million from Lam last month through Sombero at the City of Dreams hotel-casino, keeping P30 million for themselves while giving P18 million to Lam’s translator, a certain Charles Calima, and P2 million to Sombero.
They held on to the money for weeks, without ever saying that they had received it from Lam, whom Duterte wanted arrested for not paying the proper regulatory fees and employing illegal aliens, including 1,300 Chinese rounded up at his online gaming operation at the Fontana resort in Pampanga. When the story broke, the two officials went on official leave, without once mentioning that they accepted the money in order to bolster the government’s case against Lam.
And when they were finally exposed, they said they were engaged in evidence gathering, not accepting a humongous bribe. The diminutive Manny Piñol suddenly appears 10 feet tall, compared to these two jokers.
There’s just no ifs and buts about it. Robles and Argosino should be fired, prosecuted and jailed.
To do no less would be to spit on Duterte’s much-ballyhooed anti-corruption campaign.