By Chit Estella
In the Bible, Achsah was a woman who was given vast lands with springs of water. The wealth was given to her by her father who had become rich for following the will of God.
In life, Acsa Ramirez – who was named after the biblical character – is a Land Bank cashier with a wellspring of woes. Her troubles started from the oddest of reasons: she was doing her job.
By now, the most famous picture of Acsa would be one where she is standing behind President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and being pointed to by National Bureau of Investigation Director Reynaldo Wycoco. With a new notebook in her hand and looking somewhat awed, Acsa gazes at Wycoco who was introducing her. What happened next is familiar to all television viewers.
The President went on to present Acsa as a suspect in the anomaly that the Land Bank employee herself had exposed. It was to be the start of a calvary that was so unexpected because it was so undeserved.
In a room of five people, Acsa can easily be overlooked. Rather small with dark, doleful eyes, she literally stays in the background until she is called upon to come forward.
Her voice is soft and when she does speak, there is none of the glibness that one would usually associate with fighters or leaders. She is easily moved to tears when asked about her loved ones, and to giggles when teased by her colleagues in the LBP Employees Association.
When prodded, Acsa recalls a childhood that left little room for vacillation or vagueness where family values are concerned.
Her mother would warn her children against infractions, saying, “Pag kayo nagnakaw, puputulin ko mga kamay n’yo!”
Her father, a lawyer, had poor people for clients. “Kaya di siya yumaman,” Acsa says.
Acsa was well into her 30s when she got married. Today, at 38, she has two small children. Her career began where she remains to this day – at the Land Bank of the Philippines. It was an office-bound job that was to put her in situations she has never dreamed of.
Long before President Macapagal-Arroyo turned her life upside down, something had already happened to Acsa. About a decade ago, she and a fellow office worker were taken at gunpoint by unidentified men. The men wanted to know the combination of the Land Bank safe. Fortunately, neither Acsa nor her new officemate knew this. They could not tell anything to their captors even though they were scaring the wits out of the two women.
“Dinala kami sa Fairview. Talagang nag-iyakan na kami ng kasama ko,” she said, fearing being dumped as a dead body in the vast cogon areas there. She prayed like she never did before. And then, the “miracle” happened. The men released the two women, shaken but unharmed.
“Prayers really work,” was the lesson that Acsa learned from the incident.
She did not think that lightning — or tragedy — would strike twice. And so she stayed at the Land Bank.
The Manager and the Datu
On APril 18, 2002, Acsa was transferred to the Binangonan branch of the LBP. Immediately, she was told by her co-workers about things were done there.
For example, they said, the branch manager Artemio San Juan usually did not sign documents on billing, transmittal and delivery. It was usually the cashier – Acsa’s predecessor Ramon Joven – who did. Acsa thought that strange but accepted it nonetheless as part of the procedures in that branch.
It didn’t take long before she noticed something else: the huge deposits – some running into millions of pesos – in the branch that was so small compared to the larger branch that she used to work for inQuezon City. Immediately, she called the manager’s attention to the deposits.
“Boss Art, bakit ang lalaki ng mga deposits na ito? Siguro dapat ireport natin sa area head dahil baka covered ng money laundering law,” Acsa recalled telling San Juan.
But the bank manager dismissed her apprehensions and said those were valued accounts. “Marami pang mga valued accounts ‘yan, mga tatlo ‘yan,” San Juan said.
In time, Acsa noticed that the million-peso deposits would come at certain intervals: on the first few days of the month and at the middle. Still uncomfortable despite the reassurances of the branch manager, she told her worries to the branch tellers.
They said, “Kami rin, Ma’am Acsa, nagtataka rin kami.”
She persisted in reporting the matter to San Juan who again told her, “Valued accounts nga ‘yan, e.”
On June 13, Acsa learned something else. She was told by her co-workers that as early as April, San Juan had been telling them of a big depositor that he was trying to persuade to open an account in the bank. That depositor was Datu Esmayatin Bonsalagan. That day, Bonsalagan had finally agreed to deposit his money at the Binangonan branch. He was going to deposit P26 billion.
“Why here? Why did he choose a small branch?” the bank employees asked.
San Juan had a ready answer. He said Bonsalagan was involved in big projects to be put up in Binangonan. Of the P26 billion, P25 billion would be withdrawn. One billion pesos would be left with the bank.
“Magdamag kayong magbibilang ng pera,” he reportedly told the amused tellers.
The following day, the Datu arrived. He went straight to San Juan’s office. San Juan called for Acsa who was the operations supervisor, along with a teller.
Because the amount involved a huge P26-billion check, Acsa asked for Bonsalagan’s identification cards. The Datu could come up with just one ID: a card of the Humanitarian Foundation in the Order of Service, Inc. The only other signature in the card besides that of the bearer was Bonsalagan himself as president of the foundation.
Unsatisfied, Acsa asked for other identification cards. At this point, San Juan reportedly interceded and said the foundation already had an existing account with the bank. No further proof of identification was needed.
Bu what greatly alarmed Acsa was when Bonsalagan asked to withdraw P25 billion from the bank on the same day he made the deposit. Even for smaller checks, a clearing period of three days was usually observed. San Juan said it was all right to the Datu to make the withdrawal but Acsa protested.
Bonsalagan was then asked to open a personal current account. Acsa was surprised when San Juan himself coughed up to the P150 fee for the Datu’s bankbook.
Something else was working against Bonsalagan. It was past the cut-off time for clearing checks. Again San Juan reportedly helped him get around that hurdle by giving the go-ahead to his subordinates.
Acsa amusingly recalls that the teller’s machine could not accommodate the 11 digits of Bonsalagan’s deposit. There simply was no precedent for that kind of money even in the Binangonan branch.
When Acsa informed the clearing department about the deposit, the employees there were surprised and concerned. They urged her to call up the Land Bank’s area head, Carmencita Bayot. Acsa did so but Bayot was not around. She instead talked with the technical assistant, Liza Castrence.
Castrence advised Acsa to confirm the check with its bank of origin, China Bank. The check bore the certification signature of a certain A.O. Lambo and a telephone number. Acsa called up the number and Lambo anwered. He confirmed the check.
As she put down the phone, Acsa realized she probably made a mistake. She could have called up the PLDT number of China Bank instead of the telephone number that was written by Lambo. For indeed, why would Lambo deny the validity of a check that he himself had confirmed?
Acsa proceeded to again call up China Bank when she received a call from Bayot, the area head of Land Bank. Her message was to the point: Hold the Bonsalagan check. The P26-billion check was not funded.
Bayot went a step further. On that same day, she ordered the transfer of San Juan from the Binangonan branch. It was a wise move for San Juan had already learned of the hold order on the Bonsalagan check and was already calling up Acsa to pressure her into going through with the deposit.
“Baka magalit si Datu. Baka tayo kasuhan,” San Juan reportedly kept telling Acsa during the weekend as he repeatedly called her up.
Eventually, San Juan admitted to Acsa that Lambo was a fake but that despite that, they must continue to trust Bonsalagan. Acsa could not believe what she was hearing.
“Iba na talaga ang feeling ko, para akong hina-harass,” she said and asked her husband to accompany her to Bayot’s house that Sunday. She had made up her mind to tell the LBP area head everything she knows about the Binangonan branch’s operations – not just about the Datu’s P26-billion check but the other dubious accounts that ran into hundreds of millions of pesos.
A Can of Worms
In Bayot’s Antipolo house, Acsa, accompanied by her husband, told the area head about Bonsalagan’s account as well as those of several others. At that time, she referred to the latter accounts as “suspicious.”
“Magtataka ka dahil galing pa sa Pampanga. Bakit napakalayo?” she said. Four of these other accounts would later be investigated, under the names of Roberto S. Lucero, Alma A. Clemente, Joven C. Aquino and Jose M. Francisco. They represented tax payments that were supposed to have gone to the Bureau of Internal Revenue but were instead deposited into these fictitious personal accounts.
The diverted tax payments amounted to about P431 million. In the auditing made by the Land Bank, Acsa was among those who conducted the investigation.
Eventually, the case was taken to the National Bureau of Investigation which then conducted its probe of the Binangonan branch employees. The Land Bank offered Acsa as its whistle-blower to help the NBI.
On Aug. 2 – a date that Acsa said she will never forget – she was asked to go to the NBI. She was supposed to be accompanied by a Land Bank lawyer but NBI agents reportedly said there was no need to do so because she was only being invited for “questioning.” Acsa therefore went to the NBI with her husband but without a legal counsel. It was a decision she would deeply regret.
At the NBI office, barely had the agents started questioning Acsa when a commotion started.
“Nandiyan si GMA (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo)!” people in the office were saying. At that time, suspects in a fake dollar syndicate had been arrested by the NBI. The bureau wanted to show the President its latest achievement and to do this in the presence of media.
But the show apparently was not enough. “Meron pa ba diyan? Meron pa ba diyan? Kung meron pa, ilabas na ninyo!” the president reportedly asked.
It was then that Acsa’s life took a bizarre turn. The NBI agents who accompanied her to the office left for the BIR, presumably to followup on the other suspects. They turned Acsa over to the care of other agents.
Hearing the shouts of “Meron pa ba diyan? Meron pa ba diyan?”, some of the agents reportedly told Acsa, “Halika, Acsa, ipipresenta ka namin kay GMA.”
To this day, Acsa believes the agents meant to present her to the President as a whistle-blower. “Dala-dala ko pa ang notebook ko,” she said.
At that time, NBI Director Reynaldo Wycoco was still on his way from the airpotrt. He arrived in time to introduce Acsa to the President.
As soon as the President was seated, she reportedly leaned towards the NBI director and said, “O, di ba Wycs, pag hindi ka nag-report (ng accounts worth at least P4 million), violation iyan (ng anti-money laundering law)?” She recalled that two days ago, the branch manager, San Juan, was presented. And now, the cashier.
The problem was, San Juan presented as suspect. Acsa, who was a whistle-blower, should not have been presented in a similar light.
Confusion followed among the Land Bank employees. Shocked and humiliated, Acsa said, “My mind went blank.” The NBI agents who brought her to their head office apologized to the tearful Land Bank employee the following day. But Wycoco would have no part in the apology. He insisted that Acsa was under investigation as well.
Investigations did allow and in the end, the Office of the Ombudsman cleared Acsa in the tax-diversion scam that she ironically exposed. But Acsa’s relief was short-lived. The NBI filed a motion for reconsideration, insisting among other things that she be held liable. San Juan was cited for 15 counts of violation of RA9160 and Joven for six counts of the same violation. Bonsalagan remains at large.
Not Yet Over
Despite the victory she has scored at the Ombudsman, Acsa’s troubles are far from over. Security concerns have prompted her and her husband to live away from their children for the mean time.
Strange men have reportedly been seen inquiring about them in their neighborhood even as her lawyer, Virginia Pinlac, was said to have been followed by a supposed NBI agent.
Through it all, Acsa has no regrets. Her advice to civil servants: “Dapat i-report ang mali!”
She continues to have the strong support of her husband and her ailing mother who told her daughter to keep up the fight and clear her name.
In her worst moments, Acsa feels more like the biblical character Job than the fortunate Achsah. Still, she leans on the faith that has sustained her throughout her ordeal.
“Maybe, this is all the will of God,” she says.
And when it is the turn of her children to serve in government, Acsa says she will tell them, “Unahin ang serbisyo sa tao. Iwasan ang graft and corruption.”
From KILOS BAYAN, Independent Magazine for Reflection and Action, Volume 10 No. 8, March 2003