Aguirre: Mighty Corp owner can't be arrested without charges

ANOTHER RAID. Customs officials inspect cigarette cartons inside a container van belonging to Mighty Corporation in Tacloban City on March 8, 2017. Photo by Jazmin Bonifacio/Rappler

ANOTHER RAID. Customs officials inspect cigarette cartons inside a container van belonging to Mighty Corporation in Tacloban City on March 8, 2017.

Photo by Jazmin Bonifacio/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II maintained on Wednesday, March 8, that Mighty Corporation owner Alex Wongchuking cannot be arrested without charges, even after President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered it.

"At the time of our meeting yesterday, there were no cases filed against Mr Alex Wongchuking yet, that is why I did not order his arrest," Aguirre said.

Duterte confirmed on Tuesday that he ordered the arrest of Wongchuking for alleged economic sabotage over the use of fake cigarette stamps. Also on Tuesday, Wongchuking met with Aguirre and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Director Dante Gierran.

Asked if his decision not to have Wongchuking arrested was in defiance of the President, the justice chief said he was only "doing what the President would have done under the circumstances" as both of them "respect and obey the law."

Aguirre said he and Wongchuking "just talked" at his DOJ office on Tuesday.  "He expressed his willingness to fully cooperate with any investigation that may involve him," he added.

He said it is up to the Department of Finance (DOF), the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to file the necessary complaint against Wongchuking.

“If the DOF or the BIR or the BOC will determine that a criminal case should be filed against Mighty Corporation, its officers or against Alex Wongchuking with us at the DOJ, then we will faithfully discharge our duty and determine if probable cause exists," Aguirre said.

The BIR said it will file a tax evasion complaint against the country's oldest cigarette company next week, following the BOC raid with BIR personnel and local police on Mighty's Pampanga warehouse which yielded P2 billion worth of cigarettes with fake stamps.

Mighty, however, denied the fake tax stamp allegation, claimed that the BIR used "malfunctioning" devices that supposedly mistook the stamps as fake.

Tacloban raid

BIR Commissioner Caesar Dulay told reporters on Wednesday that lawyers from the company did not cooperate in last week's raid – contrary to Wongchuking's expression of cooperation in the investigation.

Dulay said that apart from the fake stamps, the BIR is also investigating Mighty for evading excise tax payments from 2010 to 2015.

Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon expressed the same view in Tacloban City on Wednesday, where he slammed Mighty for saying it would cooperate with authorities but allegedly doing otherwise. 

He cited the temporary restraining order  (TRO) against BOC that Mighty had secured from a Manila court. 

“If Mighty Corporation requested the TRO – that is contrary to their propaganda that they will cooperate with government investigation whether they are into this illicit trade or not,” Faeldon said.

Mighty’s lawyer, Tyron Tutaan, told Rappler in an interview that Judge Tita Bughao Alisuag of Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 1 issued a 20-day TRO against the BOC, from March 3 to March 23.

Tutaan said based on the TRO, BOC personnel are barred from enforcing their mission order against Mighty.

Faeldon used a BIR Special Order to allow the BOC and BIR operation at the Tacloban Port on Wednesday, involving a  Mighty container van that arrived in the city port on the evening of March 7.

The team checked 400 cartons of cigarettes and concluded that they had fake stamps, based on the taggant readers the team used.

Faeldon alleged that based on “evidence” the BOC had obtained during its raids, Mighty had been “defrauding this country by the billions of pesos  of excise taxes over the  years.”

He also reiterated his plan to cancel the import accreditation of Mighty because of its alleged use of fake tax stamps.

Aside from the fake stamps issue, Mighty is accused of attempting to "gift" Duterte with a boxful of cash when he was still mayor, which the company

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.