A young major's refusal to accept an alleged bribe to release three drug suspects set in motion a bizarre chain of events leading to congressional hearings into high-level corruption that are now playing out in Manila. The three suspects are all members of wealthy families, and include the nephew of a close aide to Philippine President Gloria MacapagalArroyo. After Major Ferdinand Marcelino turned down the alleged cash bribe last year, the suspects were nevertheless the subject of a release order that made it all the way to the desk of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez. It emerged during yesterday's hearings that the release order was personally written by the suspects' lawyer on Justice Department letterhead. Mr Gonzalez testified that he refused to sign when he became suspicious - partly because his own name had been misspelled on the release order, and partly because of a growing media furore over publicised claims that huge bribes were offered to justice department officials. The case began in September last year with Major Marcelino's arrest of Richard Brodett, Jorge Joseph and Joseph Tecson. They allegedly sold undercover officers 60 tablets of Ecstasy and were also carrying marijuana and cocaine. But an approach was soon made to have them freed. 'I was [offered bribes] twice with 3 million pesos [HK$500,000] and it went up to 20 million pesos,' Major Marcelino testified yesterday before the House of Representatives oversight committee on dangerous drugs. He became distraught as he told how the bribe came at a time when his family was desperate to pay for brain surgery for his sister. She recently died because the family could not afford the 80,000 peso treatment. He later raised the matter with his superiors, and in December the agency went public with its claims that 50 million pesos was being offered to have the men freed. By this stage the dubious release order had made it all the way to Mr Gonzalez's office - via the office of Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor, who had been in a university fraternity with the suspect's lawyer, Felisberto Verano. Mr Blancaflor's secretary testified that when she queried the document with her boss, he directed her to a state prosecutor who told her that the case had indeed been dropped. Mr Verano admitted writing the release order, but claimed he could not recall how he got Justice Department stationery. Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency director general Dionisio Santiago told lawmakers that the agency was fed up because 'we keep arresting, they [the justice department] keep releasing'. One of Mrs Arroyo's closest aides, Conrado Limcaoco, yesterday acknowledged that Brodett was his nephew, but denied assisting the men. The three suspects remain in custody.