MANILA—In 2013, an international anti-money-laundering watchdog warned the Philippines that there was a gaping hole in its defenses against people illegally moving money around its economy: the country’s casinos.
Now that loophole could end up leading to higher charges for Filipinos working abroad when they send money home to their families, as well as reputational harm to the country’s banking industry.
In recent days, financial investigators trying to track down and recover $101 million stolen in February from Bangladesh’s account at the New York Fed in an elaborate cybertheft have been stymied by the fact that casinos aren’t covered under the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Law.
When the Philippines beefed up the law in 2013, it eventually decided not to add casinos to the list of covered entities, as recommended by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a multigovernment watchdog agency. The group had singled out the industry for attention in its last review of the Philippines’ anti-money-laundering defenses three years ago. But lawmakers wanted the fledgling casino industry, and the jobs it promised to create, to flourish.
The exemption from the law means that authorities can’t compel casinos to submit reports on operations or specific players to aid their investigations even though anti-money-laundering officials believe a portion of the stolen Bangladeshi funds was used to buy gambling chips in Manila.
In testimony before the Philippine Senate this week, Julia Bacay-Abad, executive director of the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council, said evidence the council has gathered shows that millions went to a casino and to an online game firm, where they apparently were exchanged for gambling chips.
“The money trail ends there, with the casinos,” the official said, adding that the council has enlisted the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its counterparts in Hong Kong, where some of the funds may have gone. The FBI is probing the theft from Bangladesh’s account, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Philippines has managed to return only a tiny fraction of the $81 million that was traced to bank accounts in the Southeast Asian country—around $70,000 according to a Bangladesh central-bank official close to the investigation. By contrast, some $20 million of the stolen funds were funneled to Sri Lanka, but the transfer was deemed suspicious by the bank handling it and reversed by financial authorities.
About $81 million of the Bangladeshi money was sent to accounts at Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. in February, according to officials in both countries close to the investigation.
A Rizal Bank lawyer and executive told the Senate this week that a Manila branch manager, Maia Santos Deguito, had ignored an order to freeze the accounts, and instead transferred the money out of them. Ms. Deguito, who testified to the Senate at a closed-door hearing this week and who is facing a Department of Justice investigation, declined to comment on the allegations against her, invoking her right not to incriminate herself at the hearings. A lawyer for Ms. Deguito has said that his client is innocent of any wrongdoing.
The president of PhilRem, the local money-remittance firm that facilitated the transfer of $81 million out from the RCBC accounts, testified before the Philippine Senate this week that $29 million was directed to the account of a gambling junket operator he identified as Weikang Xu at Solaire Resort & Casino, while approximately $30 million was delivered to Mr. Xu in cash.
Another $21 million, the PhilRem president said, was transferred to a local online game company called Eastern Hawaii Leisure Co.
The Philippines isn’t the only country whose anti-money-laundering laws don’t cover casinos. Similar laws in some two dozen other countries, including India, Mexico and Cambodia, don’t cover casinos. But the Philippines combines a burgeoning casino industry with the existence of multiple money-remittance services, set up for overseas workers, which increases its vulnerability for use as a hub for money laundering.
On Tuesday, Cristino Naguiat Jr., chairman of Philippine Amusement & Gaming Corp., which regulates casino operations, has said he would welcome the inclusion of casinos within the ambit of the Anti-Money Laundering Council. But he expressed doubts that such a change to the anti-money-laundering laws could prevent an incident like this.
He described the movement of funds from Bangladesh to the Philippines as a “systemic failure at the bank level because banks are the primary gatekeepers against illegal transactions.”
Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Gov. Amando Tetangco told reporters on Friday that the central bank will work with Congress to enhance and “cover possible loopholes” in the law by expanding its powers to cover casinos and perhaps even real-estate companies.
If the Philippines doesn’t act to address the casino loophole soon, regulatory experts say the Philippines might risk a downgrade by FATF, the multigovernment task force, at its next review, which has yet to be scheduled. If the Philippines is bumped down to a lower ranking—which would signal a higher exposure to money-laundering risks—that could increase the cost of sending money to the country, eating into the amount of cash sent home by the Philippines’ vast diaspora of some 10 million overseas workers who remit some $24 billion a year.
Filipinos already have faced problems sending or receiving money because of the FATF’s warning flags about how terrorist groups were able to move money in and out of the southern Philippines, where Muslim militant groups still operate. Amendments to the anti-money-laundering laws have tried to address this problem, but fears of funds being funneled to militants have nevertheless affected remittances services catering to Filipinos.
Susan Ople, a migrants’ rights advocate and chairwoman of the Manila-based Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Center, said even before the investigation into the stolen Bangladeshi funds began, a number of Philippine money-transfer operations in 17 countries, including Spain, Germany and Ireland, had their bank accounts closed.
She also warned that if the government doesn’t act swiftly to change the laws, Filipinos working overseas would have to increasingly rely on foreign banks that often “charge more and generally offer inferior foreign exchange rates.”
Remittances have underpinned the strength of the Philippine peso and buoyed consumer spending—a major driver of economic activity.
Senate President Franklin Drilon this week said that expanding anti-money-laundering legislation to include casinos will be one of the first big challenges for the Philippines’ next president. The country is due to hold national elections on May 9 to choose a successor to President Benigno Aquino III, who is completing his single, six-year term.
At least one candidate, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, has warned that if the casino sector remains outside the Philippines’ anti-money-laundering laws, then “the Philippines risks becoming the world’s money-laundering capital.”
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