MALACANANG, August 30, 2003  (STAR) She may be the President, but she is not too big to make an apology.

President Arroyo formally apologized "on my own behalf and on behalf of the government" to tax diversion scam whistle-blower Acsa Ramirez for the embarrassment suffered by Ramirez when she was wrongly presented to media as one of the accused in the scam.

The President invited Ramirez to a luncheon at the Palace yesterday, a few days after the Office of the Ombudsman cleared her twice of any culpability and liability in the LandBank of the Philippines tax diversion case she reported to the authorities.

Mrs. Arroyo hugged a teary-eyed Ramirez after meeting her at the Palace and personally making an apology.

Ramirez, with her husband Feliciano, and LandBank employees’ union officials led by their president, Manuel Donato, were feted to a luncheon with Mrs. Arroyo at the Malacañang Music Room.

The President invited Ramirez and her husband to Malacañang "to apologize to Acsa on behalf of government and on my own behalf" for the inconvenience Ramirez and her family suffered."

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, who was at the luncheon, said Ramirez was "visibly moved" by the President’s gesture.

"I am glad that this is over," Ramirez said. "I am glad to see the President."

Mrs. Arroyo said the Ombudsman’s recommendations clearing Ramirez show that "our legal institutions are working and they worked in a way that people perceive to be just and fair."

Bunye said the President wanted to apologize to Ramirez after the Ombudsman initially cleared her of any fault on Nov. 25, 2002.

However, Bunye said, "the President understood that the ruling of the Ombudsman was still subject to reconsideration."

This is the second time the President and Ramirez came face-to-face with each other, the first time being Ramirez’s presentation among the suspects of the tax diversion scam at the National Bureau of Investigations (NBI) headquarters in Manila.

This meeting was happier than the first one, during which Ramirez went through the humiliation of being publicly tagged a suspect in the scam she had blown the whistle on.

Ramirez is now the operations supervisor of the LandBank branch in Binangonan, Rizal. When she informed authorities in August last year that the bank’s branch manager diverted P204 million worth of tax payments into his own account, she was a cashier.

When NBI Director Reynaldo Wycoco presented the suspects in the scam to the President, Ramirez was included in the list of accused.

Ramirez fought the legal battles to clear her name after the NBI filed criminal information against her before the Office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman dismissed the motion for reconsideration filed by NBI lawyers when the anti-graft body first cleared Ramirez of the charges.

The Palace did not say whether or not the President would fire Wycoco for this embarrassing incident that made necessary her apology.

"(The President) said she allowed NBI Director Wycoco to go through the process but told Wycoco that we cannot keep the guilt or the innocence of a person hanging," Bunye said.

This developed as Sen. Teresa Aquino Oreta urged the President to impose sanctions on Wycoco for wrongfully accusing Ramirez.

"We are glad to learn that Malacañang responded to our call for an apology long deserved by Ramirez. What we want to know now is what President Arroyo plans to do with Wycoco, who covered up the boo-boo of lumping Ramirez with the suspects in the Land Bank scam by filing charges against her," Oreta said.

Ramirez’s fate at the hands of the NBI, Oreta said, has spooked potential witnesses against corrupt officials and government employees from coming forward.

The President’s firm action against Wycoco, she said, would help send a clear message that Malacañang is serious about its campaign against graft and corruption and that the Palace supports, rather than discourages, whistleblowers in graft cases.

Wycoco also apologized to Ramirez at a separate meeting with her at the office of Land Bank president Gary Teves in Malate, Manila.

"We have to heed the decision of the Ombudsman on the matter and it is about time to end this episode," Wycoco said. "Thus we would like to extend our apologies to Ms. Acsa Ramirez for all inconveniences and regrettable circumstances that have greatly upset her and her family."

He added that he has "directed the chief of the bureau’s Anti-Fraud and Computer Crimes Division (AFCCD) to withdraw the final motion for review of the Acsa Ramirez case."

The cases against the others accused in the tax scam, however, will be pursued by the NBI "with renewed vigor."

"We have filed charges with the Ombudsman and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLAC), and we are still continuing the investigation in other cases."

"We have consistently stated from the beginning that this is not a crusade against Acsa Ramirez, but against the perpetrators of the P431 million tax scam."

Present at the meeting between Ramirez and Wycoco were officers of the Land Bank employees’ union and Ramirez’s lawyer, Vicky Pinlac. — Marichu Villanueva and Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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