Duterte still trusts immigration chief amid ‘pastillas scheme’ scandal – Palace

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 18)— Bureau of Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente still enjoys the trust of President Rodrigo Duterte, Malacañang said Tuesday, despite the controversial revelation of the so-called “pastillas” bribe scheme supposedly operated by the agency's officials at Manila's airport.

“Until he (Duterte) says otherwise, the assumption is he has confidence (in) him (Morente),” Panelo told reporters in a media briefing in Malacañang.

A Senate investigation on Monday exposed the alleged pay-off scheme that gives Chinese nationals easy access to the country. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who chairs the panel investigating the issue, said the foreign nationals pay ₱10,000 as “service fee” or grease money for a special entry treatment from the BI.

During the hearing, Hontiveros showed screenshots of a group chat of immigration officers, where lists of names of foreigners are sent daily. Once the Chinese national arrives, the immigration officer on duty would leave his booth and tell the foreigner to follow him to an office, where the passport is processed for entry. This is a departure from the standard practice where all foreigners are screened through the Immigration booths in ports, Hontiveros pointed out.

The scheme, according to Hontiveros, is worth about ₱1 billion, computed from about 2,000 Chinese citizens entering the Philippines per day.

The operation is called "pastillas" because money would be hidden in rolled bond paper like the wrapping for the milk candy. But the lawmaker said this has been upgraded to pay envelopes for the release of kickbacks.

RELATED: For ₱10,000, Chinese nationals get VIP treatment from immigration – Hontiveros

Some airport immigration officials— including the terminal heads and the chief of the travel control and enforcement unit— were relieved from their posts pending an investigation into the issue. 

Bureau of Immigration Spokesperson Dana Sandoval earlier admitted there has been irregularity in the agency processes, adding that money-making schemes are “not new” practices on the ground.

The Justice Department is set to launch a probe into the said VIP scheme. The Immigration Bureau has likewise created a fact-finding committee tasked to submit a report on the scheme.

Malacañang, for its part, said it will await a formal complaint before further commenting and acting on the matter.

“You have to file a complaint with us so that we will know, so that we can act on it. There's nothing to investigate in the first place unless there's a complaint,” Panelo said.