Bureaucrats and Gambling Lords

In a revealing op-ed article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, veteran investigative journalist Ramon Tulfo brought to light a corruption scandal involving the gambling industry.

He accused high-ranking individuals in the Bureau of Immigration of accepting a Php 50 million bribe from gambling tycoon Jack Lam, for the release of 1,316 Chinese workers arrested for violating their work visa conditions.

The article referred to two associate commissioners of the Bureau, who later revealed themselves to be deputy commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles – two individuals appointed to their roles by their San Beda College schoolmate, President Duterte himself.

Also mentioned in Tulfo’s article are two retired police officers – former PNP general Charles Calima, who is also the Bureau’s intelligence chief and former police general-turned-professional poker player Wally Sombero, who acted as Mr. Lam’s emissary.

In a press conference given by the two commissioners accused, Argosino and Robles admitted they received a sum of Php 48 million from Jack Lam but did not pocket the full amount.

They claimed that Php 2 million went to Sombero for acting as a “middle man” while Php 18 million was pocketed by Charles Calima. The two commissioners also claimed they kept the sum as “evidence”, as opposed to accepting the bribe.

While the scale of the corruption is reprehensible, it is hardly surprising. The Bureau of Immigration was cited as one of the most corrupt government agencies by President Duterte, as well as a regular top-notcher on annual “most corrupt” surveys.

There are plenty of horror stories involving immigration officers unlawfully confiscating travel documents of foreigners, hoping to extort them. Even Filipino overseas workers are not safe, being the most vulnerable to extortion tries from immigration.

Taking advantage of their susceptibility to corruption are gambling tycoons who pay their way to achieving favorable deals and immunity from immigration law violations.

Jack Lam is the recent gambling lord exposed to have immigration officers on his payroll, last year there was another Chinese national – Wang Bo – who was revealed to have paid off politicians and immigration officials to accommodate his illegal gambling operations.

When Bo was due for deportation in 2015, a case was filed against him by an unknown individual that caused the deportation orders to be halted. The case was highly suspicious, especially since the lawyer representing the complainant also represented Wang Bo.

Undoubtedly, in both cases of illegal gambling there was a pay-off involved of government civil servants. These bureaucrats thrive despite having salaries that are sub-par compared to jobs in the private sector, the dirty money that comes as extra is a lucrative reason to stay in their line of work.

The Bureau of Immigration remains a hotspot for illegal activities such as bribery and corruption, mainly attributed to their exposure to affluent, often influential individuals who can pay bribes that are mere loose change compared to the gaudy profits their illegal businesses yield.

This also explains why the other bureau considered among the ‘most corrupt’ is the Bureau of Customs, the department where shipments of methamphetamine are disguised as rice imports – and where undoubtedly the pay-off for corrupt bureaucrats is more lucrative.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s key emphasis – and why his administration enjoys record approval levels – is to stamp out corruption in the country. If he is serious about this endeavor, looking into the transactions of his most prominent bureaucrats is one obvious step to achieve this goal.

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