Fresh amendments to AMLA readied

AMLC member and Insurance Commissioner Emmanuel F. Dooc said the watchdog wants to fix the reporting period for covered and suspicious transactions at five days and will seek to expand its authority to impose a cease-and-desist order to freeze dubious bank accounts.

Republic Act 9160 or the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001 (AMLA) created the AMLC and granted it authority "to freeze any monetary instrument or property alleged to be proceeds of any unlawful activity."

But amendments made in 2003, and most recently in 2013, needed the Court of Appeals to issue the freeze order upon AMLC's request.

The existing law also allows the AMLC to stretch to up to 15 days the time required for covered institutions to report suspicious transactions.

The AMLC is also keen on including the casinos in the industries covered by the existing law.

"We are ready to submit our draft bill on amendment to the Anti-Money Laundering Act because the Senate committee has been harping on that ... Maybe we can do it by next week," Mr. Dooc told reporters on Thursday, adding that the draft proposal was distributed to AMLC members on Wednesday night for comment.

The submission would mean authorities have taken action on their earlier pronouncements they support the easing of "very strict" bank secrecy restrictions that stood in the way of thwarting and tracking illegal fund transfers.

The AMLC is an independent body that monitors the financial system to guard against dirty money deals. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Governor Amando M. Tetangco, Jr. sits as chairman of the council. Other members include the Insurance Commissioner and the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The amendments to the AMLA should "relax certain provisions of the bank secrecy law," Mr. Dooc said.

"We should liberalize or relax the bank secrecy law because now it is clear that it is a deterrent or obstacle to address money laundering offenses," he added.

The Philippine financial system was put on spotlight recently after some $81-million stolen from the Bangladesh government was laundered in the Philippines.

The massive cyber heist exposed gaping holes in the country's anti-money laundering system, allowing funds stolen from Bangladesh's account with the New York Federal Reserve to be coursed through the Philippine financial system through a bank and then casinos, which have not yet been included on the list of institutions required to report big-ticket transactions.

"We would like for instance to shorten the reporting time of covered of suspicious transactions. Now it is basically 10 days, so we would like to shorten that ... we can consider going back to the original 5 days," Mr. Dooc said.

He cited for instance that the transaction linked to the stolen Bangladeshi money was first made via a Philippine bank on Feb. 5, and adding another 10 days, the funds were already withdrawn even before necessary reports were made.

"We [also] have to strengthen our power to freeze because right now by the time freeze is effected the account is already empty," Mr. Dooc said.

"I think if there's any positive effect of this (controversy) now, we have the sense of urgency to really review our relevant laws against money laundering."

During the Senate hearings on the heist, officials of the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) -- the lender tagged in the controversy -- often invoked the bank secrecy law as a deterrent for the financial institution to reveal all details of the accounts in question.

The AMLA Law authorizes the AMLC to "inquire into or examine any particular deposit or investment with any banking institution or non-bank financial institution upon order of any competent court in cases of violation of this Act" but taking into account the provisions of Republic Act No. 1405, or the Law on Secrecy of Bank Deposits.

"You have heard the bank secrecy law being invoked by the resource persons invited by the Senate that frustrate [those] who want to get into the bottom of this thing, including us, AMLC," Mr. Dooc said.

CERTIFY AS URGENT

AMLC will ask President Benigno S.C. Aquino III to certify the proposed legislation as urgent to hasten its passage although Mr. Dooc admitted there may not be enough time.

"I just heard he is willing to certify it as urgent. I don't know whether we still have time. The chance of it to be enacted into law is very slim ... We hope that the leadership of the next Congress will be sympathetic to our efforts," he said.

Asked whether the President will certify the bill as urgent, Communications Secretary Herminio B. Coloma Jr., said: "such matters undergo a vetting process by the PLLO (Presidential Legislative Liaison Office) and the Office of the Executive Secretary in consultation with concerned departments and agencies."

"This process will result in a recommendation to the President on what action to take pertaining to a draft bill that is proposed to be certified as urgent. Please take note that there are limited session days remaining after Congress reconvenes in May," he added.

Congress adjourned sessions last Feb. 5 ahead of the May elections. Legislators will go back to work on May 23 as the Constitution requires Senate and House of Representatives -- in joint public session -- to open the certificates of canvass, not later than 30 days after the elections.

The third and last session of the 16th Congress ends on June 10.

Senator Sergio R. OsmeAa III, head of the Senate committee on banks, financial institutions and currencies, said via text: "We welcome the draft bill and the Committee will study and file it."

"Its approval will help the Philippines regain the trust of the international financial sector and just as important, protect the remittances of the OFWs," Mr. OsmeAa added when sought for comment.

Nonetheless, the senator conceded that Congress' remaining three weeks "would not be sufficient time" to pass the bill. "Remember that the House also has to pass it."

The AMLC charter was last amended in February 2013 to include foreign exchange dealers, pawnshops, and pre-need companies in reporting to the agency for possible fraudulent transactions.

Earlier this month, Mr. Tetangco said there is "some risk associated" with the case, since it could negatively affect the country's creditworthiness and return it to the watch list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

A credit downgrade or a return to the FATF's watch list, in turn, will mean higher borrowing costs for Filipinos, as well as bigger charges for those sending money home.

S and P analyst Ivan Tan however noted that the money laundering heist will not affect the "stable" outlook on the local banking sector and the country's banking sector does not risk losing the favorable tag given by the debt watcher thus far.

Source: Bworldonline