FORMER Immigration deputy commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles had no authority to conduct a unilateral probe against individuals suspected of violating immigration laws or involved in human trafficking.
This surfaced yesterday during the resumption of the Senate hearing on the bribery scandal that rocked the Bureau of Immigration last month and led to the dismissal of Argosino, Robles and retired police general Charles Calima Jr., the former acting intelligence chief of the agency.
Senators Chiz Escudero and Joel Villanueva took turns asking Argosino and Robles whether their job description included conducting probes on cases involving immigration laws and the two hemmed and hewed, with Robles finally admitting that “there is no authority giving us that kind of power,” adding that he was just assisting Argosino in his investigation.
Argosino, however, insisted that he is empowered under the human trafficking law, apparently referring to the right to make a citizen’s arrest.
The two were sacked by President Duterte last month after admitting they received P50 million from retired police official Wally Sombero, believed to be bribe money for the release of majority of 1,316 Chinese working illegally at the online gaming operations of Macau-based businessman Jack Lam at the Fontana Resort in Clark, Pampanga.
Calima was also sacked by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II for reportedly demanding P18 million as his share from the payoff.
Sombero, who was reportedly given P2 million as his share, missed the hearing for the second straight time for medical reasons. His counsel, Ted Contacto, told the panel that Sombero was in Singapore.
Panel chair Richard Gordon, meanwhile, gave Aguirre a dressing down for his failure to inform that Senate that Sombero had sought “protective custody” from the National Bureau of Investigation last December 8. NBI director Dante Gierran admitted that Sombero sought protective custody from the NBI last month.
Gordon said as a matter of courtesy, the Department of Justice should have informed the Senate that Sombero was in the custody of the NBI and that he was given permission to travel abroad last January 17.
Gordon said if Sombero fails to attend the next hearing, he will issue a show-cause order asking him to explain why he should not be cited in contempt.
Contacto said Sombero had submitted his affidavit to the NBI on the alleged bribery-extortion activities of Argosino and Robles.
“I was surprised why something as material as that was not told to us in candor,” Gordon said, referring to the protective custody of Sombero.
Turning to Aguirre, Gordon said: “I respect you a lot. I have no reason to suspect you. I just want you to explain this particular scenario bakit andoon na pala siya, ‘di niyo pa sinasabi sa amin.”
Aguirre said he did not think it was his duty to inform the Senate because he was not informed by the NBI that it had custody of Sombero. Besides, Aguirre said, the NBI was free to take custody of Sombero, even without his go signal.
Gordon, however, insisted that giving lawmakers a heads-up was “a matter of courtesy.”
Turning to NBI chief Dante Gierran, Gordon asked why the Senate was not informed of Sombero’s whereabouts, to which Gierran said the NBI was not invited during the previous hearing.
Escudero asked that a subpoena be issued to the NBI to produce Sombero in the next hearing.
“May we ask (that the) subpoena be now addressed to the NBI as well so they have the obligation to produce Mr. Sombero given that he is under their protective custody,” Escudero said.
Aguirre, meanwhile, agreed with Escudero and Villanueva that Argosino and Robles do not have authority to investigate.
“Since there are no provisions empowering them to investigate, it is hard to say that they can investigate,” he said.
Villanueva slammed Argosino and Robles. saying that based on the Administrative Code of 1987 and the Philippine Immigration Act, there is no provision of law that grants power to Argosino and Robles to conduct investigations.
Villanueva further pointed out that BI officials are only granted adjudicatory powers to decide all deportation cases, as well as appellate jurisdiction over decisions of the BI Board of Special Inquiry.
Robles, in his affidavit, denied any knowledge of the alleged bribery, saying he just accompanied Argosino at the City of Dreams upon the request of Argosino. He also maintained that during their meeting with Sombero, he never heard Argosino demanding money.
Argosino broke into tears during the hearing and he insisted that he never asked money from Lam through Sombero.
The committee played a CCTV footage of the meeting between the two former BI officials and Sombero showing the later carrying five paper bags reportedly containing cash accompanied by Argosino and Robles.
“Your honor this is a corruption of public officials. Jack Lam was never charged even during the previous administration. We returned whatever evidence we obtained,” the emotional Argosino told the senators.
Robles, for his part, claimed that Calima framed them, because instead of warning them about Sombero, as chief intelligence officer of BI, the former even connived with the latter.
“This despite the fact that there was no complaint against us by anyone,” Robles said in his affidavit.