A former branch manager of Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) was found guilty of money laundering in connection with one of the world’s largest cyberheists in which $81 million was stolen from Bangladesh’s central bank in 2016.
Maia Deguito was also ordered to pay a total fine of about $109 million.
Judge Cesar Untalan of Makati City Regional Trial Court Branch 149 on Thursday convicted Deguito of violating the Anti-Money Laundering Act on eight counts. Each count carries a penalty of four to seven years behind bars.
The conviction of the low-level bank official was the first in the hacking of the New York Fed account of Bangladesh Bank, the South Asian nation’s central bank, on Feb. 4, 2016—a theft so far-reaching that it was probed by both the Interpol and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Bangladesh Ambassador to the Philippines Asad Alam Siam, who was present during the promulgation of the decision, told reporters that he hoped the ruling would jump-start cases that had been filed in the Department of Justice (DOJ) against six other RCBC officials.
“We hope that [these] will be expedited after this case,” Siam said.
The DOJ said the case was not closed.
A North Korean hacker is also wanted by the United States on charges he and a state-sponsored hacking crew masterminded the Bangladesh heist.
Deguito’s lawyer, Demetrio Custodio, said his client had been turned into a scapegoat.
“She could not have done this on her own. A bank the size of RCBC could not have allowed a lowly bank officer to have planned this, so there are others involved in this,” Custodio said.
In a statement, RCBC maintained that the bank was a “victim” and that Deguito was a “rogue” employee.
The cyberheist turned into the biggest money laundering case in the country after it was discovered that the stolen cash had been deposited into four fictitious accounts at the RCBC branch on Jupiter Street in Makati, which Deguito had managed.
The money was then allegedly merged into a single account in the name of businessman William Go before being withdrawn and funneled to casinos.
Deguito has stood by her claims that she had no participation in the crime, declaring at one point to a Senate blue ribbon committee hearing that she was a “pawn in a high-stakes chess game played by giants in international banking.”
Untalan, wholly unconvinced, wrote in his decision: “Her declaration in open court that she has nothing to do with these transactions was a complete and comprehensive lie.”
The judge repeatedly cited Deguito’s 16 years of experience in the banking industry against her, saying that a woman of her stature would not have blindly followed instructions from higher-ranking officers to facilitate the transactions.
Untalan said that a seasoned bank official should have inquired about the source of the remittances, which he emphasized were “huge and big amounts in United States dollars!”
He also said that the testimony of prosecution witness Rafael Echaluse, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) secretariat officer who investigated the case, was “good enough to put accused Deguito behind bars.”
Echaluse testified that Deguito’s signature was on the transaction records and deposit and withdrawal slips of the four fictitious accounts, which had been opened using fabricated documents for the purpose of receiving the stolen money.
These findings were enough to convince Untalan that Deguito had “caused the opening of these accounts.”
Deguito had insisted that it was the Operation Section of the branch that oversaw the eventual consolidation of the cash from these fake accounts into Go’s.
The judge, however, said that “accused forgot the principle of command responsibility.”
Her mere position as business manager of the Jupiter branch was sufficient to hold her liable, Untalan said.
Deguito’s lawyer stressed that Untalan’s decision did not conclude that any of the stolen proceeds had ended up with Deguito.
“Because the amounts allegedly taken have been credited to the account of William Go, my client will not be forced to turn over those amounts,” Custodio said.
Casino junket operator
The owners of the dubious accounts remain at large, while several alleged conspirators have been cleared by the DOJ, including casino junket operator Kim Wong, gambler Weikang Xu and money transfer firm Philrem Service Corp.
Only $15 million of the money was recovered after it landed in the Philippines and was quickly dispersed. Tens of millions of the loot disappeared into Manila’s casinos, which were at the time exempt from rules aimed at preventing money laundering.
Custodio said his client would not spend a day behind bars until their motion for reconsideration, and possible appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, had been resolved.
Deguito has been out on bail for the charges since 2017.
“This is just a momentary setback,” Custodio said as he stood beside Deguito, who was silent and showed no emotion after the decision was read. —WITH A REPORT FROM AFP
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