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Philippine man in US$81m heist to return portion of funds

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 20:54

[MANILA] Kim Wong, the Philippine gambling junket operator dubbed the "missing link" in the cyber heist of US$81 millionin Bangladesh central bank reserves, said he's willing to return as much as US$14.3 million he received from two Chinese nationals linked to the stolen funds.

Wong told a Philippine Senate hearing Tuesday he was merely an interpreter when one of the two men asked the manager of a Rizal Commercial Banking Corp branch to open the accounts where the money eventually ended up. He received US$4.6 million as gambling funds lodged in his company, and another 450 million pesos (US$9.7 million) as debt payment from one of the men he identified as a business associate, he said.

"I had nothing to do with the actual opening of accounts," Wong said at the hearing before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. "I had nothing to do with the falsification of bank documents so the money could get in, and I don't know where the US$81 million came from."

The amount made this one of the largest bank heists in modern history, with the funds channeling through the Philippine bank 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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"Two foreigners facilitated the entry of the funds to the Philippines," Wong said. "One of them has been in and out of the Philippines for a long time already."

Wong was referring to the man he identified as a junket operator from Beijing, whom he has known for about eight years. Through that business associate, Wong met the other man, a Macau junket operator who had promised Wong that he would bring casino players to Manila.

Rizal Bank branch manager Maia Santos Deguito had been trying to encourage him to open an account at her branch, Wong said. Deguito wasn't at the hearing and her lawyer Ferdinand Topacio couldn't be reached immediately for a comment.

The Anti-Money Laundering Council would seek a meeting with the Chinese Embassy in Manila for information about the Chinese nationals, council member and Insurance Commissioner Emmanuel Dooc said, responding to a query on seeking China's help at the hearing.

Of the US$81 million in stolen funds, US$63 million was wired to the Midas and Solaire casinos, and the remaining US$18 million was sent to the remittance company, Philrem Service Corp, according to Wong. Philrem Treasurer Michael Bautista denied retaining any funds during the Senate hearing.

Rizal Bank's head of legal and regulatory affairs, Maria Celia Estavillo, said all deposits in Philippine banks were confidential and that the secrecy provisions couldn't be broken without the consent from account holder.

Even as Senator Serge Osmena said the accounts were opened in false names and there was "nobody's privacy to protect," Estavillo said the Bank Secrecy Act protected not just the account owner but the deposit itself, and there was as yet no legal determination that the funds had been stolen. "The law does not allow us to speak about these deposits," Estavillo said at the hearing.

Rizal Bank President Lorenzo Tan told the Senate hearing that the bank's human and technological controls may have failed to stop the flow of the US$81 million in stolen funds. "I think what happened here is some judgment error from the people on the ground," he said.

According to a complaint filed at the Department of Justice by Anti Money Laundering Council regulators this month, Wong is president and general manager of Eastern Hawaii Leisure Co Ltd, a casino operator that received 1 billion pesos (US$21.6 million) from Rizal Bank through local remittance company Philrem between Feb 10 and 11.

"I'm also a victim because casino is my business," Wong said in an interview on Philippine network ABS-CBN that aired on Monday. "I don't know where the money came from." Citing their investigation, regulators said Wong 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.

The Senate hearing drew the confidence of John Gomes, Bangladesh ambassador to the Philippines.

"This is a positive step," Gomes told reporters after the briefing. "It's very transparent as far as I'm concerned. It's going to the right direction. We are very hopeful that we should get back our money."

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