Philippine bank may repay part of missing funds

Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC), the Philippine lender implicated in the theft of $81 million from Bangladesh Bank's foreign reserves, would consider repaying a part of the funds that cannot be recovered, its president said yesterday.

“If we're found liable, I would recommend to the board to set aside a certain sum,” President Lorenzo Tan told a five-hour Senate hearing in Manila.

He was replying to a query from Senator Ralph Recto, who said the bank's board might want to consider shouldering about $50 million that appeared to be unrecoverable.

Investigators are seeking to track down hackers who attempted to steal almost $1 billion from Bangladesh's central bank in February. While authorities blocked most of the illicit transfers, $81 million ended up in RCBC, and was wired to remittance company Philrem Service Corporation before being sent to casinos where the money trail has gone cold. Almost all of the money is still missing.

Casino operator Kim Wong has said that he turned over about $5.5 million received from two Chinese nationals to the Anti-Money Laundering Council of the Philippines since March 31, and has pledged to return another 450 million pesos ($9.8 million) that he received from one of the men as a debt payment.

About $18 million remained with Philrem, Wong told the Senate on March 29, a claim that officials of the remittance company have denied, according to Bloomberg News.

Bangladesh's Ambassador to the Philippines John Gomes told reporters before the start of yesterday's hearing that Philrem may turn over more funds.

Gomes however did not say how much Philrem may return. “It wasn't exactly a surprise but we welcome this development,” said Gomes.

But Philrem President Salud Bautista said at the Senate hearing that her company had delivered all $81 million to Wong's group and no more money is left with them.

RCBC had received “confusing” stop payment and freeze requests via e-mail from Bangladesh Bank in February, said Macel Estavillo, the bank's head of legal and regulatory affairs, at the hearing.

She said although BB sent three requests to freeze on February 9, the messages were "vague" and "ambiguous."

Estavillo said RCBC could have reacted promptly if it received an MT192, the code for a request for cancellation or stop payment order, according to the ABS-CBN News.

“In the case of the bank of Bangladesh, they did not send us any high priority message; they did not send us any stop payment order. They just sent us an unauthenticated free format message or a 999,” Estavillo told senators. She said that at 11:22 am on February 9, the bank's settlements department opened and read an MT999, or a bank-to-bank text message, recalling funds sent to the account of a certain 'Alfred Santos Vergara'. The account was later discovered by RCBC to be fictitious.

The MT999 was forwarded to RCBC Jupiter, Makati branch.

Estavillo said the "normal priority" message from BB read: "Please be informed that this is a doubtful transaction. You are requested to stop the payment and if you already made payment then freeze the account of the beneficiary for proper investigation. We think the transaction is contradictory to the anti-money laundering law."

However, Estavillo said three minutes earlier -- at 11:19am -- $19.95 million was already transferred to the supposed account of William Go, which was also discovered later by RCBC to be an unauthorised account.

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