Going after Napoles’ wealth
On the 5th floor of a building in the tightly guarded Bangko Sentral compound is the office of one of the most secretive government agencies in the country, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).
To enter this, one has to undergo 3 checks: at the gate of what seems like a forbidding fortress, at the entrance of the building, and on the floor itself.
“Anong OB mo? [What’s your official business?]” the lady at the receiving office by the gate asked as I handed her the routine visitor’s slip with the name of the person I was going to see.
Next stop was at the building itself, where the guards asked a similar question. Bags had to pass through a security conveyor belt.
And just outside the office of the AMLC secretariat, a watchman sat by. He directed me to a small waiting room facing a door which can only be opened by those with access codes.
Welcome to the Philippines’ financial intelligence unit, the agency in hot pursuit of Janet Lim Napoles’ wealth.
In a rare interview, the chief financial sleuth of the AMLC, Julia Bacay-Abad, walked me through the process of recovering stolen assets, the fruits of corruption. Inescapably, we talked about their most high-profile case.
Bacay-Abad had just warmed her seat for a few months when the Napoles case exploded. This moved fast. In August, the Court of Appeals issued a freeze order on Napoles’ more than 300 bank accounts and 60-plus insurance policies. These are spread out in 17 banks and 6 insurance companies, as Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had announced.
The AMLC is given a maximum period of 6 months to complete its probe. If and when the cash is retrieved, the AMLC will hand it over to the national treasury.
The freeze order is a “provisional remedy while we’re completing our investigation,” Bacay-Abad, who used to work with the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), points out. “If it is established that these accounts are related to unlawful activities, then we refer the cases to the OSG which files a petition for forfeiture.”
This is the next awaited step, a process that can take time but something the public should be vigilant about.
Thanks to the amended anti-money laundering law, the AMLC is no longer hampered in its probe of suspicious bank accounts. In the past, the AMLC had to inform the account holders of their inquiry, in a way allowing them to close the questionable accounts. Or, as Bacay-Abad explains, the account holder simply went to court to have the freeze order lifted, “dragging the AMLC into prolonged litigation.”
Meanwhile, the money was moved somewhere else and the AMLC was left with an empty bag.
It was a Supreme Court decision, penned by Justice Dante Tinga in 2008, that gave this protection to bank account owners. Mercifully, this has been cured by the new law.
The amended law also requires speedy action: the Court of Appeals should issue a freeze order within 24 hours upon the AMLC’s filing of a petition.
This was what happened in the Napoles case. The one different thing here was: the freeze order was made public. The rules that cover this process are hidebound. The Supreme Court prohibits disclosure of an application for freeze order. In fact, all applications are entered into a logbook solely for this process, separate from all other cases.
No less than the presiding justice of the Court of Appeals keeps watch over this. It’s like a book of secrets. (As an aside, it’s a journalist’s dream to get hold of this.)
The Supreme Court rule reads: “No person, including Court personnel, shall disclose, divulge, or communicate to anyone directly or indirectly…the fact of the filing of the petition for freeze order, its contents…except to those authorized by the Court. Violation shall constitute contempt of court.”
“So you understand why we don’t announce these,” Bacay-Abad says. “Our petitions are investigative tools and they are not yet conclusive.”
What about the real properties of Napoles, her houses in exclusive enclaves, condominium units in minted addresses, SUVs and luxury cars? News reports say some of her properties are up for sale.
The AMLC has already requested the Land Registration Authority for a list of all Napoles properties, Bacay-Abad says, but they have yet to receive the information.
For the AMLC, stopping the cash from disappearing is a priority.
“Real properties can be traced even if they’re sold,” the straightforward AMLC boss continues. “Their urgency is not as heavy as bank accounts.”
Moreover, the AMLC is not capable of managing assets it has recovered. “We lack an asset management framework,” Bacay-Abad says.
For instance, the AMLC won a forfeiture case in 2011 involving a commercial building in Quezon City and a 7-hectare agricultural land in Pangasinan. Till today, the titles have not yet been transferred to the government because the properties are saddled with arrears. The AMLC has proposed paying the arrears to speed up the process but this has yet to be given a green light by the budget department, Commission on Audit, and the justice department.
It’s hard for the AMLC to take possession of vehicles, Bacay-Abad adds, because these need to be maintained. Who will take care of this? As it is, the AMLC is composed of 3 groups: information management and analysis which is the repository of data, compliance and investigation group, and a legal services group.
Together with other anti-corruption agencies, the AMLC has proposed the creation of a separate office that will manage forfeited assets. In the US, the Marshall Service handles the job. In the case of Thailand, its anti-money laundering group has an asset management bureau.
Meanwhile, the AMLC has its hands full. Early next year, we should be hearing from them about the results of their Napoles probe. - Rappler.com