Senate probe on influx of foreign cash brought to PH set on Thursday

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The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee headed by Senator Richard Gordon will lead an investigation on Thursday into billions of pesos-worth of cash brought mostly by Chinese nationals to the country. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 3) — The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee headed by Senator Richard Gordon will lead an investigation on Thursday into billions of pesos-worth of cash brought mostly by Chinese nationals to the country.

Gordon said from September last year to February, 47 individuals arrived in the Philippines carrying $447 million or ₱22.7 billion, according to information he got from the Bureau of Customs. At the Senate, Gordon presented a list of of those individuals who were mostly Chinese but also included some Filipinos. He said Chinese nationals brought in $210 million or ₱10.6 billion, equivalent to 46.98% of the total amount during this period.

The senator said the large sums of cash, which were declared as gambling and investment funds, was a red flag for possible money laundering.

"I am not being xenophobic I am just trying to express some concern on why there is no seeming regulation, no seeming effort to try and locate these people," he said. "If they are bringing in money, hinanap ba natin 'yung pera kung saan dinala? [did we check where they brought the money to?]"

Gordon said the money is big enough to fund classrooms or to purchase military equipment.

"I used to say that we must be a viable country but today we are becoming a buyable country," said Gordon.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the President ordered an investigation into the influx of dirty money entering the country.

"I heard him say that. Iimbestigahin talaga 'yun," said Panelo in a media briefing.

He added that the Finance Department usually heads the probe into these issues unless Secretary Carlos Dominguez asks other agencies to help.

Dominguez had already ordered the Bureau of Customs to work with the Anti-Money Laundering Council to investigate the matter.

Gordon questioned the AMLC's "deafening" silence on the issue.

He invited AMLC Executive Director Mel Racela along with officials from the Finance, Justice, Labor, Customs and Immigration agencies, among others to join Thursday's hearing.

POGO real estate

Gordon said the huge amount of cash could be linked to Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators in the country who employ mostly Chinese nationals.

During his privilege speech at the Senate, Gordon presented a video showing vans dropping off alleged POGO workers to different houses in a Parañaque City village.

"This is a very organized operation, hiring buses, hiring cars, hiring vans, getting homes, kumpleto talaga [it's really complete]," he said.

This convinced the senator that the billions of cash may be poured into real estate to house these illegal workers. He cited a spike in condominium prices by 34% according to international debt watcher Fitch Ratings.

In a 2019 report by Leechiu Property Consultants, POGOs were seen to overtake business process outsourcing firms in occupying office spaces in the country. Gordon cited another report by the consulting firm that said there are 470,000 POGO workers in the country, higher than the government's estimate of 150,000.

Gordon added that the money could also be used for crime, citing prostitution dens with foreign women caught in several police raids. He said it was even more alarming considering these sums entered the country legally.

Eliminate POGOs?

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon suggested stopping POGO operations in the country, in light of Gordon's report.

"Obviously this is happening because we have POGOs in our country today. If we don't allow POGOs, these incidents would not have happened," said Drilon.

Drilon mentioned the crackdown of gaming operators in Cambodia. He alleged that those companies may have moved their operations to the Philippines.

"Shoud we continue with this policy of allowing overseas gaming operations in the country with all the illicit activities that come with it?" raised Drilon.

Gordon answered saying he is open to the idea but he wants to investigate the people behind the operations first.

"I'd like to see what are the syndicates behind this, how much taxes we're collecting. I want to know who is not paying their taxes and who is not enforcing the law," said Gordon.

Last month, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said the Chinese government has obtained a list of its nationals suspected of committing cybercrimes outside China, including the Philippines. 

Senator Risa Hontiveros also revealed that some Chinese POGO workers conspired with immigration personnel to dodge background checks upon entering the country, paying bribes under what is billed as "pastillas" scheme. 

The Bureau of Internal Revenue earlier revealed that over ₱27 billion worth of tax liabilities remain uncollected from the POGO sector.