Argosino accused as 'main plunderer' in immigration bribery scandal

MANILA, Philippines – The Sandiganbayan accepted amended charges stemming from the Bureau of Immigration (BI) bribery scandal, with former deputy commissioner Al Argosino now alleged to be the main plunderer.

The move to amend the charges was an apparent effort on the part of Office of the Ombudsman prosecutors to satisfy legal standards in a plunder case, which were introduced when the Supreme Court (SC) acquitted former Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of plunder in 2016.

The Sandiganbayan 6th Division approved on June 4 the amended charges against Argosino, former BI deputy commissioner Michael Robles, and Wenceslao "Wally" Sombero, the middleman allegedly used by business tycoon Jack Lam to bribe the officials.

Context: When Ombudsman prosecutors filed the plunder charges on March 23, they accused Argosino and Robles of conspiring with Sombero to "criminally demand" P50 million from Lam.

Argosino and Robles are currently in jail.

Ombudsman prosecutors amended the charges so the complaint now reads: "Argosino, by himself and/or in conspiracy with his co-accused, Michael Robles, and Wenceslao Sombero did then and there accumulate and acquire, directly or indirectly, ill-gotten wealth in the aggregate amount of P50 million."

The major difference is the isolation of Argosino as the main plunderer. In her indictment, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said Argosino was indeed the main plunderer.

Why the need for main plunderer? When the SC acquitted Arroyo of plunder in the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) intelligence fund scam, the Court said the lack of a main plunderer gives doubt that plunder was indeed committed.

The SC added in its controversial decision that because there isn't a main plunderer, the total P365 million in the alleged scam must be divided among the accused. Divided by 10 – the number of accused – the amount became P36 million each, which is below the P50 million threshold to charge someone with plunder.

The main plunderer principle was also the Sandiganbayan Special 5th Division's basis to grant bail to former senator Jinggoy Estrada. Alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles is now using the principle in multiple petitions to get herself off the hook.

The amended charges in the Argosino case address those technical issues.

The Sandiganbayan approved the amended charges because Argosino, Robles, and Sombero have not been arraigned for plunder yet. They were previously arraigned for graft and direct bribery.

"It appearing that accused Al Argosino, Michael Robles, and Wenceslao Sombero have not yet entered their respective pleas, and there being no objection on the part of all 3 accused, the Court resolves to grant the prosecution's urgent motion to admit amended information," stated the minute resolution approved by Associate Justices Sarah Jane Fernandez, Karl Miranda, and Zaldy Trespeses.

Background: Lam allegedly used Sombero to pay off the BI, in exchange for the release of Chinese workers who were arrested for illegally staying and working in the Philippines.

It was Argosino who allegedly asked for a total of P100 million. He and Robles received P50 million on November 26, 2016. Argosino and Robles claimed they accepted the money as part of evidence to pin down Lam.

A Senate committee report said this claim is doubtful since the two kept the money from November 26 to December 13.

Resigned justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II was implicated in the controversy for having met with Lam and Sombero earlier in the day on November 26, with Argosino also present.

Aguirre was cleared by the Senate blue ribbon committee. He is not part of the charges. – Rappler.com

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 lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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