Chinese-Filipino named in bank probe

Manila’s banking centre, Ayala Avenue. Source: Wikimedia

Chinese-Filipino tycoon Kam Sin Wong, who is also known as Kim Wong, is suspected to have masterminded the theft of US$81 million from Bangladesh Bank, according to Manila’s Daily Inquirer.

Senator Serge Osmeña reportedly said that Rizal Commercial Banking Corp’s branch manager Maia Santos-Deguito was “not the most guilty party in the caper”.

The paper said Osmeña described Deguito as a “credible witness” after she was questioned by senators behind closed doors on Thursday last week.

“It was Wong who asked Deguito to open the bank accounts where the US$81 million were wired to, and who instructed her to use the services of foreign exchange remittance company Philrem Services Inc,” he was quoted saying by the Inquirer. He said the pair knew each other beforehand.

The Philippines has some of the world’s strictest bank secrecy laws to protect account holders, while its casinos are altogether exempt from rules aimed at preventing money laundering.

“I did not do anything wrong. If this is a nightmare, I want to wake up now,” Maia Deguito, the manager of RCBC bank, told ABS-CBN television after she was stopped at Manila airport trying to leave the country. “I live everyday in fear.”

Osmena, who is pushing for stronger anti-money laundering legislation, said: “The Philippines is very attractive because our laws have gaping holes. It’s easy to launder money here.”

The senator said Wong would face the senate’s committee, which is probing the laundering of money hacked from Bangladesh Bank’s US account.

“There is an orchestrator here, a mastermind and right now, it looks like it’s Kim Wong, but we have to give him a chance and let him come back from his trip abroad to testify before the committee,” the senator told the media. “He’s a big player in this. He’s a missing link.”

Wong was currently having medical treatment overseas, his lawyer said. The senator claimed Wong asked Deguito to open five dollar accounts.

Only four of the five accounts were used to receive the US$81 million with the fifth left unused, he said.

Wong was summoned to a senate committee in August 2001 as a part of an investigation involving drugs charges and other criminal activities.

The Philippines depends heavily on remittances from overseas workers, which make up about 10 per cent of GDP.

The bank’s governor and two deputy governors resigned last week over the scandal.

Bangladesh formally sought the assistance from the US FBI.

Senator Teofisto Guingona said after a public hearing on the case last week that fierce lobbying by casinos over the law had left the Philippines one of the world’s softest targets for money launderers, putting the financial system at serious risk.

“It can wreak havoc on the economy,” he said. “Any money coming in and out of the country will come under scrutiny. People might just say ‘to hell with it, it’s not worth doing business with the Philippines’.”