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Maia Santos-Deguito, manager of Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation's (RCBC) Jupiter Street branch in Makati City of the Philippines

Banker in bank heist row

Maia Santos-Deguito, manager of Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation’s (RCBC) Jupiter Street branch in Makati City of the Philippines is feeling the heat of the allegation of laundering $81 million stolen from the US account of Bangladesh Bank.  The branch has been at the centre of attention since the case, the biggest in the banking history, became public last week.

Deguito is being investigated by the RCBC head office for alleged violations of the bank’s money-laundering and terror financing-prevention programme manual, and for falsification of deposit account opening and other offences listed by RCBC’s human resources group in a show-cause memorandum dated March 2.

What is more, Deguito was offloaded from a Philippine Airlines flight heading for Tokyo on Friday, after the Southeast Asian country’s Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) treating her as “part of the money-laundering scheme”. She was barred from leaving the country ahead of a Senate investigation into her alleged involvement in the cross-border remittance transaction.

A photo published yesterday on the Inquirer, the news site that broke the story, showed she was walking in Ninoy Aquino International Airport after being offloaded from the plane. The news outlet said Deguito not knowing that she was on the lookout list of the Bureau of Immigration, had tried to leave the Philippines.

She was already aboard Philippine Airlines Flight 432 with her husband and son when immigration officials came aboard and took them off the plane. David de Castro, spokesperson for the Manila International Airport Authority, said they were “off-loaded” on orders from the immigration bureau. Nikki Reyes, spokesperson for the immigration bureau, said Deguito had been included in the immigration lookout list on orders of the Department of Justice.

A source told the Inquirer that Senator Serge Osmeña III, who is leading a Senate investigation into the alleged laundering, had asked the justice department to stop Deguito from leaving the country. RCBC lawyers had asked Osmeña to intervene and keep Deguito in the country, the source said. Deguito, at whose bank branch the $81 million was transferred by unknown computer hackers from the BB’s account in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is under investigation by the RCBC management.

The AMLC of the Philippines and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) are looking into the operation to launder the stolen money through the Philippine financial system. The Senate committee will open its own investigation on Tuesday. No charges have been brought against Deguito, but she said in a radio interview on Friday that immigration officers showed her a fax from the AMLC stating that she was “part of the money-laundering scheme”.

“[It means] they should not allow me to escape from the law. But I’m not really escaping from anything,” Deguito said. She said she had been receiving death threats since reports of the alleged money laundering broke, but she was just taking her son to Disneyland in Tokyo as a birthday gift.

Deguito said the immigration officers showed her no subpoena. Neither from the Senate that summoned her to next week’s hearing, nor from a court. “[My lawyer] talked to the immigration officers, but they kept saying [they were just following orders],” she said. She did not say where she and her family were taken, but an airport source told the Inquirer that they were taken to the immigration bureau’s main office in Intramuros, Manila.

In the radio interview, Deguito also said she was “just a small person” to be blamed for the mess at RCBC. “I’m just an employee. All I know is I never did anything wrong,” she said. Asked if she was willing to be a state witness in the investigation, Deguito said she was afraid to do so.

“It’s the same. It will be like I’m in prison,” she said. “What I know is, I did not do anything wrong. I did not steal anything. I did not get anything.” Now it emerges that the branch manager as well as the head of the bank apparently had the knowledge about the stealing of BB’s money from its account with the New York Fed.

Businessman William S Go, one of six people under investigation for the alleged money laundering, said an affidavit submitted to the NBI claims that Deguito had told him that two bogus accounts had been set up at her branch to handle a large US dollar remittance coming from Bangladesh. It said the money was converted into pesos with the approval of the RCBC head office.

William Go denied being involved in the alleged money-laundering operation, claiming that Deguito had forged his signature to open an account in his name at the bank. In a press conference on Friday, Go’s lawyer Ramon Esguerra said the accounts in his client’s name at the RCBC Jupiter branch were bogus and that Go’s signatures were forged by the branch manager.

“Ms Santos [Deguito] admitted to me that she opened Centurytex’s RCBC accounts to facilitate the deposit of a substantial amount of US dollar remittance allegedly coming from Bangladesh, which she later converted to Philippine pesos. She said her actions were all cleared and allowed by RCBC ‘head office,’” Go said in a sworn statement that was distributed to the media at the press briefing.

Esguerra said Go and Deguito had known each other before the latter joined the RCBC. Deguito said she knew Go, but denied Go’s allegations raised through his lawyer Ramon Esguerra that she met with the businessman and asked him to sign documents that would close his account at her branch.

Asked whether Go was lying, she said, “I will answer that in the Senate.” Asked if RCBC president and CEO Lorenzo Tan knew about the alleged money laundering, she said she assumed he did. “I’m not accusing him. I will just assume, because this is a huge amount of money. It will be credited to the treasury of the bank before it gets credited to our branch,” said Deguito.

Tan has denied knowledge of the scheme. On Friday, Tan’s lawyer Francis Lim said Tan had offered to go on leave to give the bank a free hand in investigating the alleged money laundering. In an interview on Monday, lawyer Ferdie Topacio said his client, Deguito, had told him that she received specific instructions directly from RCBC CEO Tan to allow the transfer of $81 million into five accounts in her branch.

In a press statement on Wednesday, however, Tan branded “malicious” the “insinuations” that the RCBC top management had approved the multimillion-dollar transfer into the Jupiter branch, which later turned out to be part of an international money-laundering scheme.

Deguito said apart from the $81 million “plus” that was credited to her branch, “there was a call [on February 9] from the settlement department of the bank that there was an additional payment but they no longer credited it (in the Jupiter branch accounts) because they reportedly said there was a recall.”

“As to how much was that, I have no idea,” she said. Deguito said the money that was credited to her branch “went through the process”. “I was not the one who credited that straight. There is a department at the head office that handles the remittance. So there’s a long process that needs to be followed before the money reaches my branch,” she said.

Deguito said she instructed her assistant to e-mail the remittance department for information about the source of the funds and what they were intended for. “They did not call me. [The money] was just credited in the account. And now it’s all my fault,” she said. Deguito acknowledged that Michael Francisco Cruz, Jessie Christopher Lagrosas, Enrico Teodoro Vasquez, and Alfred Santos Vergara opened accounts at her branch.

Deguito said she first met the holders of the subject accounts on March 13, 2015, at Solaire Resort and Casino, claiming this was upon the referral of a casino high-roller. The accounts were allegedly used for receiving the funds from the Bangladesh Bank that were to be transferred from its account in the New York Fed. The accounts were later consolidated into one of Go’s accounts at Deguito’s branch and allegedly laundered through three casinos in Manila, reported the Inquirer.

The immigration bureau’s order to stop Deguito from leaving the Philippines was a violation of constitutional and human rights, her lawyer said yesterday. “We condemn in the strongest terms possible the blatant violation of the Constitutional and Human Rights of our client, Ms Maia Santos-Deguito, perpetrated by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Immigration, in forcibly offloading her, her husband and 10-year-old son from a plane at the last minute that it was about to leave for Japan,” lawyer Ferdinand Topacio said in a statement.

“The heavy-handed manner by which the offloading was done, which would not be out of place in a police state such as North Korea, has traumatised not only Ms Santos-Deguito and her husband, but worse, her child of tender years, who kept crying throughout the ordeal and even all the way back home, as he could not, in his young mind, understand why his plane going to Disneyland left without him,” he added.

Hackers stole $101 million from the BB’s account with the New York Fed. Of the amount, $20 million went to a bank in Sri Lanka, and the money has been recovered, according to the BB.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh Bank will need two more weeks to reach a conclusion in its ongoing investigation into the hacking incident that stole some $101 million from its account with the New York Federal Reserve. Central bank deputy governor Abu Hena Razee Hasan said this while briefing reporters Sunday about the latest developments in its ongoing investigation.

“Still our investigation continues and it needs two more weeks to reach a conclusion,” he told reporters, responding to a query on whether anyone inside the central bank was involved or not in the heist. Hasan informed that a World Bank consultant is working with the investigators to identify anyone who may have been involved in the theft.

He also said the Bangladesh Bank management will provide clarification as to why it kept its governing body members, including the finance minister and banking secretary, in the dark over the incident till it was first revealed by the media in the Phillipines, where at least $81 million of the stolen money was routed, over a month after the money was taken out, agencies report.

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