A senior executive has been arrested and charged for defrauding Metropolitan Bank and Trust Co. (Metrobank) in a scandal that sent the lender’s shares tumbling on Friday.
National Bureau of Investigation officials presented Maria Victoria Lopez, a vice president at the corporate services unit of Metrobank’s head office in Makati City, to reporters on Friday afternoon, hours after the banks and financial intermediaries committee of the House of Representatives announced an inquiry into the fraud that hit the Philippines’ second-largest bank.
NBI officials said Lopez, who appeared at the news conference with her face covered with a shawl, was suspected of stealing P1.75 billion in loans from Metrobank.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer was the first to report on the fraud, stating in its Friday edition that Metrobank, owned and controlled by George Ty, may have lost as much as P2.5 billion after the suspect allegedly funneled disbursed loans into fictitious accounts created in the name of one of the bank’s biggest corporate clients, Universal Robina Corp. (URC).
A trusted employee of the bank for 30 years, earning a monthly salary of P250,000, Lopez was arrested on Monday while trying to move the stolen money to an unspecified personal account, NBI spokesperson Ferdinand Lavin said.
“The biggest loser of this is the integrity of the banking system,” Lavin said.
The NBI filed charges of theft, violation of the banking law and falsification of documents against Lopez at the Makati City Prosecutor’s Office on Tuesday.
Metrobank did not confirm how much was stolen or detail the timeframe of the fraud, but stressed that it did not affect its customers.
“In the context of the bank’s P1.9-trillion financial resources, rest assured that we continue to operate business as usual for the bank and our customers,” the listed lender said in a statement.
Metrobank is investigating whether there were other people involved in the fraud, Lavin said.
URC, a large food processing company, said on Friday the fraudulent loans had been drawn from its credit facility with Metrobank.
“We thank Metrobank president Fabian Dee for giving us a heads-up advice that URC will not be financially impacted in any way by this incident,” the company said in a statement.
Investors sell their shares
The fraud, however, wiped out nearly P15.2 billion off the paper value of Metrobank on Friday as investors sold down the stock.
Metrobank shares closed 5.03 percent lower on Friday to P86.90.
The lender’s parent company, GT Capital Holdings, fell 2.85 percent to P1,195.
URC shares closed 0.62 percent down to P161 Friday.
But Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Gov. Nestor Espenilla told reporters he had no doubt Metrobank would be able to absorb the blow.
“Banks have controls so that these kinds of things can be mitigated and withstood,” Espenilla said.
But he added: “We have to look into the adequacy of those controls if in fact a significant crime happened.”
Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, chair of the House banks and financial intermediaries committee, said his panel would inquire into the fraud.
“The discovery of the ‘fake accounts’ in Metrobank is very alarming,” Evardone said in a statement.
“The adverse effects of the existence of ‘fake bank accounts’ is more damaging than ‘fake news’ because this [involves] actual money of depositors,” he said.
Evardone did not say when the inquiry would be held, but said BSP officials would be invited to the hearings.
Metrobank officials will also be questioned to determine how the fraud happened, he said.
“We will look into their protocols and procedures [to see] why fake accounts were allowed to be opened,” he added.
The Inquirer reported on Friday that the money in the fake accounts was siphoned off electronically into other accounts in other banks and into the pocket of Lopez.
Initial investigation showed that Lopez made two separate loans—P900 and P850 million—from URC’s P25-billion credit line.
Lawyer Norman Anire of the NBI told the news conference that Metrobank discovered the fraud after noticing that one promissory note intended for the payment of interests was irregular.
“Based on the presentation of the bank … their employees discovered the falsified letter directing the bank to issue a manager’s check in favor of an individual payee. That itself is a red flag,” Anire said.
He explained that since the owner of the credit line was a corporate account, the bank “cannot issue a manager’s check to an individual payee.”
Anire said bank officials decided to verify the loans with URC and learned that the company had made no such loans.
The NBI officials could not provide more details, as they did not have full information from Metrobank.
It seems that because the credit line used to facilitate the theft belonged to a valued client, bank officials did not question the transactions.
To cover her tracks, Lopez would pay the interest on the loans and she was supposed to pay P2.250 million in interest, the funds for which she debited from URC’s account, on the day she was arrested.
‘I was surprised’
Lopez, who is a year short of retirement from the bank, lives in a posh village in Quezon City.
She owns nine cars, the “cheapest” of which, according to NBI officials, is a Range Rover.
The officials did not say how many children Lopez has, but some of them, according to them, are in school in the United States.
Lopez talked to the Inquirer briefly, but kept the shawl that covered her face.
“No,” she said when asked whether the money really went to her personal accounts.
When asked whether she worked alone, Lopez fell silent.
She said she was in her office when NBI agents arrested her in an entrapment operation on Monday.
“I was surprised,” she said. —WITH REPORTS FROM DJ YAP AND AFP
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