AN IMPEACHMENT complaint has been filed against Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.

Andres Bautista
Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista — KJ ROSALES/PHILIPPINE STAR

Meanwhile, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) has started its own probe on allegations of ill-gotten wealth involving Mr. Bautista as well as the thrift bank where millions of funds under his name where reportedly lodged.

The impeachment complaint was filed on Wednesday, Aug. 23, by lawyer Ferdinand Topacio and former congressman Jacinto Paras. It was endorsed by Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia, Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque and Cavite Rep. Abraham Tolentino.

Mr. Bautista was allegedly keeping unexplained and unreported wealth of at least P1 billion as revealed by his wife, Patricia Paz Cruz-Bautista.

The Comelec chairman has denied he amassed ill-gotten wealth, and said he can defend every single detail of his Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net worth in the face of allegations by his wife that he kept 35 accounts amounting to P329.22 million in just one thrift bank, the Luzon Development Bank (LDB), where deposits of less than P500,000 – the amount at which anti-money laundering laws require transaction reports from banks — had been routinely made over time.

Ms. Garcia, for her part, said she hopes the impeachment process would shed light on the controversies surrounding the election’s automated system. “I have always had my serious doubts about the automated voting system and I think this is the right time to see and to check on the veracity as well as the credibility of the automated voting system,” she said.

The complaint accused Mr. Bautista of culpably violating the Constitution and/or betraying public trust in the following circumstances, among others: when he failed to truthfully, accurately or completely disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth; when he neglected his duties and responsibilities, particularly in collecting and further processing of personal data, which led to the unnecessary exposure of personal and sensitive information of millions of Filipinos; and when he cleared Smartmatic and Comelec IT specialists of any wrongdoing for the so-called script tweak during consolidation and canvassing of results in the May 2016 elections.

At the Senate on Wednesday, AMLC Secretariat Officer-in-Charge Mel Georgie B. Racela explained to the committee on banks, financial institutions, and currencies that the financial intelligence unit was conducting its inquiry, following “a referral from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI)…(on) the affidavit of Ms. Patricia Bautista.”

The Senate committee, too, has joined inquiries here and there on the allegations against Mr. Bautista. Mr. Racela, later asked by reporters to clarify his remarks to the committee, said the AMLC is looking into possible breaches committed by both Mr. Bautista and the LDB.

During the hearing, Mr. Racela noted that the non-reporting of suspicious fund transfers by banks constitutes a money laundering offense.

The AMLC official added that they would now focus on assessing the paper trail covering such transactions including the reporting done by the bank, which would complement a separate on-site examination conducted by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP).

In theory, officials like Mr. Bautista and his immediate family members could be subject to enhanced due diligence by the bank given his prominent position in government — or what is called his distinction as a “politically exposed person (PEP)” in legal terms.

Mr. Racela said this would entail stricter requirements before deposits can be accepted by any financial firm, which needs senior management approval before an account can be created along with supporting documents to justify his wealth.

Asked whether the use of multiple bank accounts should appear as a red flag as in the poll chief’s case, Mr. Racela said such strategy was not always suspicious as this could simply entail the distribution of assets for monitoring purposes.

Mr. Bautista has admitted that he maintains several accounts with LDB as he trusted the Limcaoco clan, the bank owners and friends of the election chief.

For his part, LDB president David G. Sarmiento, Jr. maintained that the thrift lender stands compliant with existing rules imposed by both the BSP and the AMLC, including the filing of reports on suspicious transactions.

“We have a process in place so a PEP will go through our process whether he knows somebody in the bank….That applies to all our depositors,” Mr. Sarmiento told lawmakers when asked how they are supposed to treat clients.

Both the bank and the government agencies investigating Mr. Bautista’s case refused to divulge specific details about his bank transactions in light of the deposit secrecy law. Senators Francis Joseph “Chiz” G. Escudero and Franklin M. Drilon also said they will push for the easing of this rule to fast-track investigations.

This prompted the Senate body to invite the Comelec chief to their next hearing and urge him to issue a waiver so that his bank accounts can be discussed in public as part of the probe.

A separate NBI probe also revealed some potential questions on transactions done with the LDB, with anti-fraud division supervising agent Minerva A. Sobreviga-Retanal saying that assets of sequestered companies under the watch of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) — which Mr. Bautista previously headed — were transferred under the Luzon-based lender.

Mr. Bautista served as PCGG chief under the Aquino administration from 2010-2015 after years of private practice under international law firms. His accounts were eventually closed sometime in 2016, or past his stint at the PCGG.

Ms. Retanal said they are doing a “historical analysis” of these financial transactions after they noted “sequential” account numbers at LDB.

Mr. Escudero said the committee will also consider looking into this matter, noting that it would ideally be beneficial to keep state-owned funds under a government bank.

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre II yesterday directed the PCGG, the three-decade old commission tasked to go after the ill-gotten wealth of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. and his cronies, to probe Mr. Bautista’s alleged ill-gotten wealth.

The justice chief issued Department No. 551 which gave the PCGG the authority to investigate the alleged corruption and amassed ill-gotten wealth of Mr. Bautista, as claimed by his estranged wife.

Mr. Aguirre also ordered the PCGG to “closely coordinate with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Commission on Audit (CoA) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) in the conduct of its investigation and…to prosecute cases, when necessary.”

The PCGG is an attached agency of the DoJ.

The PCGG was also ordered to look into a report by CoA that “more than One Hundred Million Pesos (in) Unliquidated Cash Disbursements (were) obtained from the Philippine National Bank (PNB) Dollar Escrow Accounts of the PCGG” during Mr. Bautista’s stint as PCGG Chair.

The commission was ordered as well to look into the reported abuse of resources of sequestered and surrendered entities on Mr. Bautista’s watch, “including but not limited to the millions of pesos worth of gift checks and gift cards received by J. Andres Bautista and his staff, including those supposedly given to the members of the media.”

Mr. Aguirre further asked the PCGG to probe the alleged kickbacks, commissions that Mr. Bautista may have received from the “purported excessive billings made to law firms supposedly connected to him.”

In her affidavit, Ms. Bautista claimed that her husband received commission sheets from Divina Law, where he practiced before moving on to public service.

Last Friday, Aug. 18, Mr. Aguirre said Mrs. Bautista was given provisional government protection under the DoJ’s Witness Protection Program, after she cited threats to her life.

The NBI is conducting a separate investigation on Mr. Bautista, as noted in Mr. Aguirre’s Department Order of Mr. Aguirre.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) is also looking into possible tax evasion violation by Mr. Bautista. — reports by, Melissa Luz T. Lopez, and Kristine Joy V. Patag