“Pastillas” whistleblower Jeffrey Dale Ignacio has been removed by the court from the list of accused and named him witness to pin down his BI colleagues involved in the scam.
Immigration officer, Jeffrey Dale Ignacio, who helped expose the “pastillas scam” at the airport years ago, was spared from corruption charges after the Sandiganbayan accepted the prosecution’s move to make him a witness instead of a respondent.
The “pastillas” scam is a bribery racket that allowed unchecked entries of Chinese nationals into the country. It was also behind the trafficking of Filipino women and children.
Those that are involved in the scam were charged with corruption and human trafficking.
At least 50 Bureau of Immigration (BI) personnel have been implicated in the scam. They were accused of accepting a total of P10,000 “service fee” each with banknotes rolled in a white bond paper to look like a “pastillas.”
The accused BI personnel received this from at least 143 Chinese passengers who were allowed to enter the country without going through customs and immigration procedures since 2017.
The motion to amend the case information and remove Ignacio's name from the list of charged individuals was objected by the defense counsel representing his colleagues at the BI.
However, the objections were overruled by the antigraft court’s Seventh Division.
Ignacio has now been granted immunity by the Office of the Ombudsman and he joins another informant and fellow BI agent named Allison Chiong.
Chiong was never charged in the case but was joined by Ignacio as witnesses for the prosecution. He is a state witness under the government’s witness protection program.
However, unlike Chiong, the court said that Ignacio is considered as an “ordinary witness” after confessing that he is part of the pastillas scam before his testimony in a Senate inquire two years ago.
35 of 50 accused plead not guilty
Of the 50 BI workers arraigned 35 pleaded not guilty of violating Republic Act No. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
The other 15 refused to enter a plea prompting the presiding justice to do so on their behalf as mandated under court rules.
Among those who refused to enter plea was Marc Red Mariñas, former BI deputy commissioner who was reported to be heading the ports operation division and the alleged group ringleader.
Mariñas and the other defendants were charged in June. He resigned from his position before the scam broke out and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Muntinlupa City in the May elections.
Meanwhile, owner and proprietor of Empire International Travel and Tours Liya Wu entered a not guilty plea.
The travel agency was accused of paying bribes to allow its clients to enter without going through the customary entry processes. It is identified as one of the key players of the pastillas scam as it provides the BI officers a list of Chinese passengers seeking “VIP” treatment upon arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).
The list, which comes from various travel agencies, were allegedly forwarded to Viber group chats with immigration officers.
In the updated charge sheet, Ignacio worked as an immigration officer III. He was released as an accused in exchange for testifying against other people involved in the scam.
He was presented as a star witness along with Chiong by Sen. Risa Hontiveros during a series of Senate hearings last 2020 that investigated the apparent unhindered entry of many Chinese into the country.
Meanwhile, defense lawyers Joel Ferrer and Erika Gallego, who represented the accused, spent more than an hour contesting the prosecutors’ decision to remove Ignacio from the list of accused.
They argued that Ignacio was not fit to become a witness due to violation of their clients’ rights to due process, citing a human trafficking case which involves Ignacio.
Gallego also cited Rule 119 of the court rules, disputing Ignacio's credibility to testify.
However, Associate Justice and Seventh Division Chair Zaldy Trespeses, Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, and Associate Justice Georgina Hidalgo said that the prosecution has every authority to amend the criminal information prior to the trial.
To address Rule 119 of Gallego, Tang said that it could not be invoked since the prosecution had not yet presented its evidence.
Trespeses granted the prosecution’s motion over the lawyers’ objections.
Ignacio’s role as a witness
After the hearing, media tried to get Ignacio’s comment regarding the recent situation but were barred by a security team.
Ferrer was the one who spoke to the reporters saying that Ignacio should not have been exempted from criminal charges as “he seems to be the most guilty.”
However, Ferrer mentioned that it was good for the defense that Ignacio was not considered as a state witness as it “could make a lot of difference.”
“But with the ruling of the court now, he will be considered as an ordinary witness,” Ferrer said as Ignacio would only be a link that would support and complement the testimony of Chiong.
Ferrer also revealed why one of his clients, Mariñas, refused to enter a plea, stating that the decision was in line with their plan to contest the Sandiganbayan's authority over the former BI official.
He added in that Mariñas was only on Salary Grade 15, and that the Sandiganbayan could only exercise jurisdiction over government personnel on Salary Grade 27 and higher.
Hontiveros' panel recommended corruption charges against the BI officials participating in the scheme. When the cops, including Ignacio, were indicted, the senator petitioned the Ombudsman to release him because of his role in exposing the scheme.
Despite being involved in the pastillas scam, Ignacio’s role as a witness will help shed light on the almost-institutionalized corruption in the BI and help identify some of the “big cats” involved in this scam.
His testimony will provide a big boost to the prosecution of the corrupt authorities
Tags: #Corruption, #PastillasScam, #WhistleBlower, #Chinese, #Illegal