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Wednesday, Jul. 26, 2006 at 12:52 PM
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— A former protégé of Sen. Panfilo Lacson pleaded guilty on Monday to unauthorized possession of US government defense documents. Former police senior superintendent Michael Ray Aquino’s guilty plea spared himself a possible life sentence and also spared the US government a messy trial that could highlight weaknesses on how it guards its secrets.
Michael Ray pleads guilty
By Jose Katigbak, STAR Washington bureau
The Philippine Star 07/26/2006
WASHINGTON — A former protégé of Sen. Panfilo Lacson pleaded guilty on Monday to unauthorized possession of US government defense documents.
Former police senior superintendent Michael Ray Aquino’s guilty plea spared himself a possible life sentence and also spared the US government a messy trial that could highlight weaknesses on how it guards its secrets.
Prosecutors will seek a sentence of between 70 and 87 months when Aquino is sentenced on Oct. 30. But his lawyer will argue that lower federal sentencing guidelines, of between 37 to 46 months, should apply. The final decision is up to the judge.
Aquino has been in federal custody since his arrest on Sept. 10, 2005 on spying charges. Prosecutors accuse Aquino of possessing secret documents containing information on the United States’ confidential intelligence sources and methods, as well as information on terrorist threats to US military personnel in the Philippines.
He entered his guilty plea before US District Judge William H. Walls in Newark, New Jersey. Aquino faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Aquino, 40, admitted that he received documents and information from Leandro Aragoncillo, a Filipino-American FBI intelligence analyst who formerly worked at the White House, that contained details of threats to US military personnel in the Philippines and confidential intelligence sources and methods of the US government, the US Attorney’s office for the district of New Jersey said.
He admitted receiving documents and information from Aragoncillo from January 2005 until his arrest.
Aragoncillo was a US Marine who worked as an aide to military advisers for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney, and later as an FBI intelligence analyst at Fort Monmouth. In pleading guilty in May to conspiracy, he admitted passing classified information to Aquino and opposition politicians in the Philippines to help them oust President Arroyo.
Lacson has close links to deposed President Joseph Estrada, the political opposition’s de facto leader.
Mrs. Arroyo has been hounded since last year by allegations that she cheated in the 2004 presidential election and has survived numerous opposition efforts to force her from office.
"Aquino is now an admitted spy, who cultivated and used Aragoncillo, a willing accomplice, to transfer US intelligence secrets abroad," said US Attorney Christopher J. Christie.
"He did this at the behest of a high-level government official in the Philippine legislature. We view that as a grave intrusion on the integrity of our national security, and we will seek the longest prison sentence possible for Aquino," Christie said. He did not identify the official he was referring to.
"New Jersey is not the traditional locale one thinks of as a haven for spies," said Les Wiser Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark bureau. "This case showcases the stark reality that those who conduct foreign espionage activity will endeavor to exploit every available opportunity to ply their craft, regardless of their location or position of responsibility."
Aquino’s lawyer denied that Aquino passed along the information to anyone else. Defense lawyer Mark Berman said Aquino has never denied possessing the documents, but maintained he did not know they were secret.
"There was no way to know they were classified," Berman said after the hearing. "He didn’t know they contained information related to military preparedness. He didn’t know it was classified."
Berman said that at the hearing Aquino pleaded guilty to possession of US government documents that related to national defense, "which means that they made reference to national preparedness issues."
"He was not interested in the national defense aspect of the documents but, nevertheless, admitted that they contained such information," Berman said.
"(Aquino’s) guilty plea is consistent with my prior public statements, specifically, that he did not know the documents he received from Aragoncillo were classified, and that he did not act as an agent of a foreign government or official. He is facing a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but we will be arguing at sentencing that a three-year sentence recommended by the sentencing guidelines is appropriate," Berman said in an e-mail to the STAR bureau in Washington.
At the hearing Aquino told Judge Walls that Aragoncillo, using the alias "Juan Miguel," transmitted the documents to him by e-mail.
He said Aragoncillo warned him to protect his identity as the source of the documents which contained sensitive information that should not be disseminated to others.
At his own hearing last May, Aragoncillo specifically identified Aquino as his conduit in the spy ring but mentioned no other names and his conspirators in Manila were merely referred to as "executive branch official #1", "senator #1" and "representative #1".
However, US prosecutors had earlier alleged Estrada was among the conspirators, along with Lacson and Camarines Sur Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella, a former speaker of the House of Representatives.
In fact Berman at one point sought Judge Walls’ permission to question Estrada and Lacson. Estrada and Lacson have acknowledged receiving information from Aquino or Aragoncillo, but deny any wrongdoing.
"I’m still hoping for the best for him in the sense that he gets the minimum sentence," Lacson told reporters seeking comment.
During his plea, Aquino acknowledged that the documents he received contained such information.
"That’s not what I was interested in, but I saw them," Aquino told Walls.
Berman said Aquino "had a continuing interest in events in the Philippines. He is someone who is not a supporter of the current government in the Philippines.
"Aragoncillo offered information to him," Berman said. "He shouldn’t have accepted it, but he did."
His lawyer has said Aragoncillo was acting out of a sense of patriotism because he believed developments in his homeland were going badly. He is to be sentenced next month.
Berman said all Aquino was asked to do was introduce Aragoncillo to Lacson, which he did via e-mail. Afterward, Aragoncillo started sending him documents he had pilfered from government files, the attorney said.
A resident of Woodbury, New Jersey, Aragoncillo was an FBI intelligence analyst at the time of his arrest on Sept. 10, 2005.
Aragoncillo pleaded guilty on May 4 this year to one count of conspiracy to transmit national defense information and another count of transmitting national defense information, which carry a maximum term of life in prison.
He also pleaded to two counts of unlawful retention of national defense information and unlawful use of a government computer both of which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 14.
The plea deal enables Aquino to avoid an espionage charge, which could have sent him to prison for life.
It also spares the government from a trial that would have shown how Aragoncillo was able to steal hundreds of classified documents while working in the White House for four years.
Aquino, accompanied by his wife and son entered the United States on July 5, 2001 on a tourist visa after charges were filed against him in Manila in connection with the murder of public relations consultant Salvador "Bubby" Dacer and his driver Emmanuel Corbito in November of 2000.
He studied nursing in New York and passed the board examinations in 2004.
Aquino’s name came to the attention of the FBI when Aragoncillo who was then under surveillance began asking immigration officials about a case involving Aquino overstaying his visa.
On Oct. 6, 2005, a federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment against Aquino charging him with defrauding the United States by conspiring with Aragoncillo and other people to receive classified information from Aragoncillo.
Aquino was also charged with acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government official. He is likely to be deported after serving his prison term.
— With AP, Pia Lee-Brago, Marvin Sy
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