Sombrero (pictured), who fled the Philippines on January 17 after being accused of assisting Lam’s alleged efforts to bribe local government officials, returned to the country on Tuesday. Sombrero had ignored three previous summons to appear before the Senate committee, and his testimony on Thursday did little to endear himself to Senators.
On November 26, surveillance video at the City of Dreams Manila casino observed Sombrero delivering paper bags containing P50m (US $1m) to two Bureau of Immigration officials – Al Argosino and Michael Robles – allegedly to obtain the release of some of the 1,300 Chinese workers who’d been arrested a few days earlier for working without permits at an illegal online gambling operation at Lam’s Fontana Casino in the Clark Freeport.
Right from the start, Sombrero irritated Senator Richard Gordon by claiming that “no extortion or bribery” took place at the casino, instead characterizing the handing over of the sacks of cash as “a payoff.” Gordon warned Sombrero to stop splitting hairs and “just tell the truth” or the committee would treat him as a hostile witness.
THE BUCK STOPS EVERYWHERE
Confusion reigned over the source of the money in those paper bags. Sombrero testified that Lam borrowed the cash from City of Dreams Manila junket operators and that the cash came from a casino cage. But Sombrero also claimed that the money in the bags didn’t come from Lam but from online gambling service providers renting space at Lam’s Fontana property.
Sombrero is the founder of something called the Asian Gaming Service Provider Association (AGSPA), which claims to represent business process outsourcing companies. But despite being formed nearly two years ago, the AGSPA website remains nothing more than a ‘coming soon’ landing page.
Lam’s interpreter Alex Yu testified that the P50m came from junket operators Jimei Group, Bota Club and Lucky Titanium, and that Lam intended to get an additional P50m from online gambling operators in China to meet Argosino and Robles’ demands. Jimei was founded by Lam while Lucky Titanium is run by Lam’s business partner, Charlie ‘Atong’ Ang, who also reportedly heads up Meridien Vista Gaming Corp.
Sombrero initially claimed that he didn’t want to be the one who withdrew the cash from the casino cage, so Yu instructed Sombrero to enlist two men – Wilson de Jesus and Martin Corpuz – to make the withdrawals.
However, Yu testified that it was Sombrero who enlisted de Jesus and Corpuz, and Sombrero later confirmed that he did know the pair, prompting Senator Gordon to warn Sombrero that he was “bordering on contempt” by “protecting yourself from bribery, extortion.”
SECOND PAYMENT ABORTED BUT NOT RETURNED
Sombrero also claimed that he’d advised Yu not to make the second payment of P50m to Argosino and Robles because none of the Chinese workers had been released following the first payment.
Sombrero – who initially claimed P2m of the original P50m payment as his ‘fee’ – admitted that he’d also kept the P10m that Yu had given him as partial payment of the second P50m. Sombrero said he’d yet to return the cash to Yu because he and Lam’s group had to do some “accounting” regarding legal fees.
Argosino and Robles, who were dismissed from the BI once the scandal broke, stuck to their earlier story on Thursday, telling the committee that they’d requested the money as evidence to build a bribery case against Lam.
The Committee expressed an interest in getting Lam’s side of the story directly from the source, but Lam’s attorney Raymond Fortun told the committee that Lam had no intention of returning to the Philippines.
TROUBLESHOOTING ONESELF IN THE FOOT
Upon his return to the Philippines on Tuesday, Sombrero told local media that “if anybody can prove I’m a middleman or I know Jack Lam, I don’t even need a hearing, I’ll go straight to prison.”
But Sombrero’s own LinkedIn profile aggressively promotes his “close personal and professional relationship with key officers of important government agencies,” including the Bureau of Immigration. Sombrero says this “extensive network” enables him “to serve as an extra-judicial ‘trouble shooter’ who can expedite ‘win-win solutions’ with utmost discretion.”
The National Bureau of Investigation charged Sombrero, Lam, Argosino, Robles and BI intelligence chief Charles Calima under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act on January 27.