MANILA, Philippines - Did an unemployed and now-heralded overseas Filipino worker in Hong Kong really return a total of P2.1-million pesos worth of cash and checks or was her heroic act of honesty just rubbish?
When the story was first reported last May, Mildred Perez became the latest OFW lionized for her extraordinary virtue. She was showered with cash donations and praise. President Gloria Arroyo was even televised presenting her with a commendation.
But a Filipino community paper in the Chinese territory has challenged the so-called honesty of the 38-year-old domestic helper-turned-garbage scavenger who claimed to have found and returned the bag of treasure last April in exchange for a can of butter cookies.
Daisy Mandap of The Sun wrote on Wednesday that Perez’s celebrated story of returning a total of HK$350,545 was only half true as the $176,000 in cash she claimed to have found never existed.
"The more important half that caused many Filipinos to put her on a pedestal was nothing but a big lie," Mandap wrote in the report.
In the May 31 story that appeared in the Inquirer, Perez reportedly told Hong Kong-based reporter Blanche Rivera that the bag contained four checks: one for $13,000, another for $5,000, a third for $3,250, and another for HK$10,920.
Did she or didn't she? Based on the signed document presented by The Sun, the four checks Perez swore to have returned only amounted to roughly HK$176,000. Aside from the checks, the report mentioned that $176,000 in cash was also uncovered “in denomination of $1,000" bills that day. The $176,000 in cash and the four checks would amount to HK$350,545, the report said.
(Without the HK before it, the $176,000 in cash is presumably in US dollars, which would make the HK$350,545 in the Inquirer grossly inaccurate. At the current exchange rate of 1US$ = HK$7.7502, $176,000 would actually equal HK$1,364,035.20 even without factoring in the checks.) [See sidebar for additional information].
No mention of cash
But from a statement signed by Perez and submitted to Deputy Labor Attaché Nida Romulo of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Hong Kong, Mandap in her The Sun report noted that there was no mention of the $176,000 cash.
The Sun stressed that the document detailed only four checks returned on April 30. The statement was signed by Perez, a companion named David as well as two other individuals identified as the “recipients" of the lost bag. (The reporter later identified the two recipients as Yvonne Tsang and Kitty Yeung of Pioneer Electronics Company Limited, which presumably owned the bag).
A company employee interviewed by The Sun verified the denomination of the four checks and additional cash that only amounted to HK$500. The same employee said the checks couldn't have been encashed by strangers since it was issued to the company. She also didn’t say that the returned envelope was missing $176,000.
"Apparently, Perez’s lie started unraveling much earlier, though either by design or negligence," Mandap wrote, “the Filipino community was kept in the dark about what was happening."
Curiously, the cash the Inquirer reported that Perez found was the exact same amount as the total of the checks (HK$176,000) confirmed to have been returned by the OFW if the currency had been in HK$ instead of US$.
Click here to enlarge document signed by Perez.In a phone interview Tuesday night, Perez told GMANews.TV, that she was standing by her claim that she returned all the contents of the bag including the wad of money.
"Kung ano yung sinabi ko sa report ‘yun yung totoo [Whatever I said in the report is the truth]," Perez said from her hometown in Nueva Vizcaya, "I don’t give time for these people. Pressured na po ako [I’m already pressured]."
She begged off from further interviews and said she would clear things up only when she returns to Hong Kong.
Perez, a native of Bambang town in the northern Philippine province of Nueva Vizcaya, went to Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper for the sake of her family.
She was fired from her work after she filed a sexual harassment case against her employer in 2007. While waiting for the resolution of the case, she turned to scrounging in garbage bins for income. Hong Kong law bars foreign workers from seeking employment while a court case in which they are involved have yet to be resolved.
Reports that the owner of the checks and cash gave Perez only biscuits as a reward gained her sympathy.
In Hong Kong, members of the Filipino community and other expatriates and locals were said to have passed the hat around for her and collected about $15,000, while the Philippine Consulate General paid for her return air fare to Manila and the cost of sending her cargo to Nueva Vizcaya.
A citation from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) praised Perez’s honesty, which moved the House of Representatives in the Philippines to raise some P100,000 for Perez’s family and commend her for her "honesty and trustworthiness."
The scavenger suddenly became a celebrity, was feted at several events and even conferred a presidential award in Hong Kong by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who thanked her for setting a fine example for all overseas Filipinos.
She was commended and given a cash reward by the provincial government of Nueva Vizcaya, offered scholarships for her two grownup children, a job for her husband, and reportedly a movie deal worth P5 million.
Perez thanks Sen. Francis Escudero in his office Wednesday, after he granted scholarships to her children. GMANews.TVReactions
Sought for comment on The Sun’s report, senior Nueva Vizcaya board member Patricio Dumlao shook his head in response.
"If this is true, then the provincial board should be circumspect in handling cases of the same nature in the future to avoid posers who will take advantage of the provincial board’s generosity," he said.
But Rep. Carlos Padilla of the lone district of Nueva Vizcaya, who authored the House resolution commending Perez, said the OFW was probably being subjected to "vilification from some sectors."
Padilla, who helped raise some P100,000 financial support for Perez’s family, said he based his actions on a report by the DFA.
"A letter was sent to me by the undersecretary of the DFA Esteban Conejos dated July 6 and my office received it on July 13. I regard it as the DFA’s official position on the matter," Padilla said.
The Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong said it “stands by its belief that OFW Mildred Perez Bonde committed an honorable act of honesty…"
"Ms. Bonde has consistently stated to the Consulate that among the items she recovered and returned to the owners was cash; the Consulate, which continues to provide consular assistance to Ms. Bonde on her police case, cannot disbelieve her," said the statement signed by Consul General Claro Cristobal.
It noted that Perez exerted time and effort to securing the items she recovered and locate the rightful owners, and return the checks and cash. The statement did not give specifics on the disputed cash amount. - with Floro Taguinod, GMANews.TV