POSTSCRIPT / November 6, 1997 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Espiritu buys Philippine News; De Villa high on FVR checklist

THE Filipino banker who was reported in Dateline Chicago in the last issue as having bought the San Francisco-based Philippine News from businessman Alex Esclamado is Ed Espiritu, chairman of Westmont Bank in Manila.

Reputed to be operating with some Malaysian associates, Espiritu has diversified into the publishing business. He recently became a director of Philippine Daily Inquirer after his group bought the bulk of the shares of erstwhile PDI chairman Eggie Apostol.

Apostol, who co-founded Inquirer in 1986 with the late Betty Belmonte, originally held 49 percent of PDI. This holding, however, was diluted to 33 percent in 1993 with the entry of a group led by realtor Marixi Rufino Prieto.

Although she considered ‑ with justifiable pride ‑ the Inquirer her baby, Apostol was forced to sell out when caught in a squeeze play. After being deposed as PDI chairman, she was also maneuvered into giving up her 33.3-percent share in the profitable separate company that was printing the Inquirer.

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THE Prieto group was able to slip in by buying the P10-million loan originally secured by the Inquirer from Hong Kong-based First Pacific and which was later transferred to Excel, a group led by the late Mariano Quimson of the Manila Bulletin. Prieto bought the loan from Excel as her passport into the Inquirer.

An interesting feature of that no-collateral P10-million loan was its convertibility to 33 percent of PDI equity. Roughly, PDI is now divided among the groups of Prieto, Quimson (Excel) and Espiritu each holding 33 percent. A minority, mostly original employes, holds a little more than 1 percent.

From her 33-percent share, Prieto has improved her holdings to controlling position reportedly by buying Quimson’s shares in Excel and, according to some insiders, a part of the Apostol shares sold to Espiritu’s group. (More juicy details of Inquirer politics and infighting circulate in the Internet.)

Espiritu’s sitting in the Inquirer board, meanwhile, has raised questions of conflict of interest, because he is also in the publishing business and is therefore a competitor. He has his own burgeoning publishing house one of whose publications is Business Daily.

His alleged Malaysian connection has also raised legal questions, since the Constitution totally bans foreign interests from media. Problems involving foreign funds, however, are usually skirted by layering.

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SPOTTING the floundering Philippine News, Espiritu raided it by first buying 51 percent of equity, according to sources. When basic policy differences with Esclamado continued to fester, Espiritu reportedly told the PN publisher to buy him out or he buys him out.

Since Espiritu had the money that Esclamado did not have, the banker ended up owning the paper and kicking out Esclamado.

Among their points of disagreement was reportedly Esclamado’s using the paper as an extension of his advocacy politics. It is obvious now that Esclamado’s sellout has weakened his political leverage.

Until deadline time, we could not verify how much Espiritu paid for Philippine News. But sources said that aside from his mailing list and the name of the paper, Esclamado did not have much to offer.

Having established a foothold in the North American news market, Espiritu is reportedly moving aggressively to gain a position of media leadership, at least in the Filipino-American market. He plans to put up his own printing facility in the West Coast.

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IN Manila, meanwhile, the administration Lakas-NUCD party starts this week a series of consultations wherein President Ramos will gauge party preference for seven presidential wannabes. The consultations will replace the national party convention.

The “presidentiables” include Speaker Jose de Venecia and former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa as frontrunners. The party’s door had been slammed on Sen. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who insisted on joining Lakas only if made the standard bearer. This attitude did not sit well with party leaders.

Since President Ramos alone will report out the sentiments of party delegates, in effect he will dictate the outcome of the consultations.

The consensus is that De Venecia would clinch the nomination in an open convention, but that De Villa is likely to be endorsed by President Ramos after the party consultations.

By the way, our peregrinating President will be in your area of responsibility late this month after his power-tripping in Vancouver. Huwag ninyong pabayaan!

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