MANILA, March 29, (Agencies): Two Chinese men were responsible for moving $81 million stolen by hackers from Bangladesh’s foreign reserves into Philippine casinos, an inquiry in Manila heard on Tuesday.
Following the heist, the millions stolen from the Bangladesh central bank’s American accounts on Feb 5 were immediately sent via electronic transfer to a Philippine bank. The dollar accounts where the stolen funds landed were reportedly opened by two men, Sua Hua Gao from Beijing and a Macau associate identified only as Ding, in Manila’s Rizal Commercial Banking Corp (RCBC) nine months before the theft.
“Two foreigners were responsible for bringing in the $81 million,” casino operator Kim Wong said at a Senate hearing in Manila. A portion of the money was later converted into Philippine pesos and deposited into Wong’s account at a Manila mega-casino where the junket operator is based, Filipino investigators have alleged. Wong said he did not know that the money was stolen from Bangladesh’s foreign reserves, which were kept at the United States Federal Reserve in New York. Wong and another Chinese casino junket operator, Weikang Xu, are under criminal investigation by Filipino prosecutors for their alleged role in laundering the proceeds of the heist.
Wong said he was told last month by the duo that “money was coming” to the five RCBC accounts. The authorities said the cyber heist occurred a day later. RCBC has admitted the accounts through which the allegedly stolen money was deposited had been opened under fictitious names. Wong’s testimony appears to shed some light on the brazen caper that has forced Bangladesh Bank governor Atiur Rahman to resign and highlighted how the Philippines has become a money-laundering destination due to loose regulation of its casinos.
Philippine law exempts casino transactions from scrutiny by the country’s anti-money laundering council without a case filed in court. Wong described Sua as a “big junket operator” who was 450 million pesos ($9.7 million) in debt at Manila’s Solaire, one of the Philippines’ biggest casinos. Wong said the high roller told him he would use the RCBC dollar accounts to transfer money to pay off his debt. “He said he was selling property in China,” Wong told the hearing. However, Ding said he was planning to invest in the Philippines because “casinos in Macau are struggling”, according to Wong. The current whereabouts of the two Chinese nationals is unknown.
The Senate investigation earlier established that $29 million of the stolen Bangladesh Bank money was shifted to Solaire. Wong said his friend and RCBC branch manager Maia Deguito, who authorities say is a suspect in the Philippine investigation, helped open the dollar accounts, reportedly telling Sua at one point: “Leave it to me.”
Deguito, who has denied involvement in money laundering, was suffering from fatigue and was absent from Tuesday’s hearing, her lawyer said. None of the money has been recovered yet. In related news, about $6.9 million out of $81 million stolen from Bangladesh’s central bank and sent to fake bank accounts in the Philippines remain in local casinos and may still be recovered, the Philippine Senate heard in testimony Tuesday. The laundering of the stolen money in the Philippines has added pressure on the Southeast Asian country to close loopholes in its financial system. Wong volunteered to return $4.63 million that remains in a junket account in Solaire Resort and Casino, and another 40 million pesos ($863,000) still in Midas Hotel casino under the account of his company, Eastern Hawaii Leisure Co. Silverio Benny Tan, corporate secretary of Solaire’s operator Bloomberry Resorts Corp., told the hearing the casino has frozen 108.67 million pesos worth of chips and money in different denominations confiscated from the gamblers when the bank heist issue came to light.