By Karen Lema
MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine lender RCBC and a Bangladeshi minister traded blame on Tuesday over liability for tens of millions of dollars that were looted from a New York bank and then went missing in Manila after one of the biggest bank frauds ever.
Unknown cyber criminals tried to steal nearly $1 billion from Bangladesh Bank in February and managed to make off with $81 million via an account at the New York Federal Reserve. That was transferred to four accounts with bogus names at one RCBC branch in Manila before vanishing.
The lawyer for RCBC, or Rizal Commercial Banking Corp (RCBC), said that her client had no reason to compensate Bangladesh Bank, saying that the lender was “negligent” because the initial security breach was its own fault.
Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Huq said that was “irrelevant” and argued that RCBC should shoulder the burden for accepting stolen cash.
“It is not for RCBC to point fingers. They should explain their conduct, and the conduct has been very much culpable,” he told a news conference in Manila.
Most of the money that ended up in the Philippines was laundered through casinos. About $15 million has been recovered from a gaming junket operator and was returned to Bangladesh, with a further $2.7 million frozen.
Huq, who is in Manila to speed recovery of the money, said that his delegation met the Philippines finance minister, gaming regulators, justice department and the Senate speaker.
All had assured him of their full cooperation in getting the money returned, Huq said, adding that Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr told him that he would start the process to resume a legislative hearing into the heist saga.
Bangladesh Bank has refused to disclose the findings of its own inquiry, saying that it wanted to deny the crime’s perpetrators knowledge of the investigation.
‘ABNORMAL’ AND ‘QUESTIONABLE’
But RCBC external counsel Thea Daep said it should share those results and shed light on the identity of the perpetrators.
“They have no case against us. BB (Bangladesh Bank) was the one who was negligent,” Daep said in a statement.
RCBC received the funds after they went through three layers of highly protected financial institutions, Daep said, adding that reports from Bangladesh officials indicated there were insiders in Dhaka facilitating the heist.
“Shortly after, BB decided to abort its investigation, which raises a lot of questions, to say the least,” Daep said.
Bangladesh Bank spokesman Subhankar Saha told Reuters that “halt payment” instructions were sent to RCBC from both Dhaka and New York but RCBC did not comply.
“The payment in cash was also abnormal,” he said in Dhaka. “…The mechanism of transfer of money was also not transparent. So all these are questionable.”
The Bangladesh delegation was due on Thursday to meet the Philippine central bank governor and the anti-money laundering body, which last week filed charges against five RCBC staff in connection with the heist.
The central bank fined RCBC a record 1 billion pesos ($20 million) for failing to prevent the transfer of stolen money through its accounts.
Huq said that by paying that fine RCBC had shown its culpability.
“They have accepted the liability by paying the fine,” he said. “That is why we are asking them to return our money.”
(Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in Dhaka; Editing by Martin Petty and David Goodman)