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'Missing link' in US$81m cyber heist set to testify Tuesday

[MANILA] Kim Wong, the Philippine gambling junket operator whom a lawmaker has dubbed the 'missing link' in the cyber heist of US$81 million in Bangladesh central bank funds, will testify Tuesday before a televised Senate committee meeting.

Mr Wong's lawyer Victor Fernandez said in a mobile-phone message on Monday that his client, back in the Philippines after almost a month of medical treatment in Singapore, would not seek a closed-door meeting before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.

His appearance may shift the focus of the hearings from the Philippine banking sector, through which the money moved, to the murky operations of casino junket providers. The episode more broadly has raised fresh questions about the efforts of President Benigno Aquino's administration to crack down on money laundering and graft in the country.

In one of the largest bank heists in modern history, hackers stole US$81 million from Bangladesh Bank, channeling the money through the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp to at least two Philippine casinos where the money trail has gone cold. A further US$20 million that the hackers managed to transfer to a Sri Lankan bank was recovered.

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"Kim Wong is a big player and he's the missing link in this case," Senator Sergio Osmena, who heads the Senate banking committee, told reporters on March 18.

'A Victim'

Mr Wong said in an interview with ABS-CBN that aired on Monday he will name two foreigners who may be involved in money laundering. 

"I'm also a victim because casino is my business," he said. "I don't know where the money came from."

According to a complaint filed at the Department of Justice by Anti Money Laundering Council regulators this month, Mr Wong is president and general manager of Eastern Hawaii Leisure Co Ltd, a casino operator that received 1 billion pesos (S$29.6 million) from Rizal Bank through local remittance company Philrem Service Corp between Feb 10 and 11. Eastern Hawaii could not be reached for comment.

Citing their investigation, regulators believe Mr Wong then withdrew a total of 1.3 billion pesos from an Eastern Hawaii account and his own personal account with Philippine National Bank between Feb 10 and 26. Both accounts were ordered frozen by the Court of Appeals on March 1, regulators said.

Chinese National

Last week Mr Fernandez slammed the case against his client, saying it was based just on a transcript of the testimony of Maia Santos Deguito, the Rizal Bank branch manager who approved the transfers of the money to the casinos.

"We deplore the precipitate filing of a case against my client," Mr Fernandez said.

Mr Fernandez confirmed that in 2001, Mr Wong appeared before the Senate committee under the name Kam Sin Wong after he was linked to the illegal drugs trade. Mr Fernandez said his client was later cleared in a committee report.

Citing testimony from Philrem Service Corp president Salud Bautista on March 15, the Anti Money Laundering Council complaint also named Chinese national Weikang Xu as an alleged recipient of US$30.6 million in Bangladesh Bank funds. Mr Xu has refused two previous requests to appear before the Senate committee investigating the heist. He could not be reached for comment.

Senator Osmena said that in closed-door testimony to the committee earlier this month, Ms Deguito alleged it was Mr Wong who provided the referrals for four US dollar accounts to be opened in the Makati City financial district in May last year. Her lawyer Ferdinand Topacio has said previously Ms Deguito was following the orders of her superiors on the transfers.

Ms Deguito told the committee in an open hearing she met Mr Wong at a 2014 party also attended by Rizal Bank President Lorenzo Tan. Mr Tan had socialized with Mr Wong and asked her to take care of the businessman.

"I'm supposed to give him preferential accommodation or treatment," Ms Deguito said. She also said Mr Tan, who went on leave last week from his job, never asked her to open any accounts for Mr Wong.

Mr Tan told the hearing he first met Mr Wong at his restaurant in 2002 and didn't see him again for 12 years. He also denied telling Ms Deguito to take care of Mr Wong.

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