POSTSCRIPT / October 17, 2000 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Who do we save: Erap or this bleeding nation?

THE big question now facing us is: Who do we save — Erap Estrada or the nation?

We will soon know the people’s response to this momentous question. Meantime, all of us are called upon to participate in shaping that historic answer.

* * *

ERAP Estrada should be alarmed at the Pulse Asia survey in Metro Manila showing that only 210 (or 53 percent of 397 respondents) of the more than 12 million residents of the metropolis wanted him to cling to the presidency.

But reports from Malacañang had it that the President was ecstatic with joy that more than a majority (53 percent) of the respondents wanted more of Erap.

Talking of polls (pronounced “false”) and perception, many people tell us that Erap struck them as just making “bola” when he read that script on TV last Saturday saying that he had erred and was now making amends by having government close its gambling infrastructure.

* * *

ACTUALLY, Erap deserves some credit. He has done this bleeding nation a big favor by demonstrating the folly of electing characters who have nothing to commend them to public office except their popularity with the fans.

After two disastrous years of Erap capped by the current scandal over his allegedly collecting jueteng payola, it is doubtful if Filipinos would again commit the same mistake of confusing glitter and glamour for uprightness and competence.

Is it now goodbye to the senatorial delusions of his sons and some media types who had clambered up his jeepney on their way to the 2001 elections? Should his showbiz friends still push through with their preparations to “serve” in government?

* * *

ONE person caught in the political maelstrom is Pagcor chairman Alice Reyes who has been called to appear before the Senate Blue Ribbon committee looking into disclosures of Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson that Erap has been collecting suitcases of jueteng millions.

Pagcor insiders report that Reyes is going through some soul-searching in the face of persistent calls from the Palace to fix her records to sustain the line of Erap’s gambling crony Charlie “Atong” Ang before the Senate.

A crucial point is the supposed contract between Ang and Pagcor that was to spell out the legal framework of the deal between him and Pagcor involving Bingo 2-Ball, Erap’s reinvention of the illegal game of jueteng.

* * *

INSIDERS tell us that there was no such contract at the time Bingo 2-Ball was launched and until Ang first testified early this month before the committee chaired by Sen. Nene Pimentel. In fact, in the hearing, Ang also could not produce a copy of his alleged appointment as a Pagcor consultant.

The question now is whether or not Reyes would succumb to pressure to produce a contract confirming Ang’s allegations before the Senate regarding Bingo 2-Ball.

Reyes’ predicament is reminiscent of the pressure on former chairman Perfecto Yasay of the Securities and Exchange Commission for him to protect another presidential gambling crony, Dante Tan, in the insider trading scandal that has crippled the stock market.

The SEC chairman tried holding his ground until he was forced to quit. How would Reyes handle this test on her integrity as a person and a manager?

* * *

THE dilemma of Reyes is no small matter. If she signs a contract confirming the details given by Ang to the Senate, she could be slapped with graft charges for signing a contract grossly disadvantageous to the government.

Her friends are praying that she has learned her lesson from her having been implicated in a graft case arising from the granting of a behest loan by the Development Bank of the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship.

Reyes was then with the DBP board that was pressured to pass upon the questioned loan. As a result, she is now a respondent in a graft case.

Will she approve another contract, this time with presidential gambling buddy Ang, that is manifestly disadvantageous to the government — and open herself to another big graft case?

Taking off from the title of this Postscript, we now also ask if Reyes would sacrifice herself to save Erap.

* * *

EVEN Erap apparently conceded the Bingo 2-Ball deal to be onerous when he ordered that Pagcor be scrapped and Ang removed as gambling consultant. (With Pagcor operating under a charter from Congress, can the President unilaterally close it?)

Aside from the lack of a written contract, the Ang deal with Pagcor started off with the wrong foot. Although he would be handling billions in bet collections, he was not made to file a surety bond as is the normal practice.

But while he did not file a bond, Ang in turn collected subfranchise fees from provincial operators of Bingo 2-Ball of at least P2 million each. Pagcor reportedly had no share in these fees collected by Ang.

* * *

THERE was no management control to account for collections from bettors. Ang was to simply declare what the total collection was and, based on his figure, remit to Pagcor 23 percent of that nebulous amount.

As for the 77 percent that he retains, he alone would decide what to do with it. He told the Senate that he intended to give back 60 percent to winning bettors (if any). It was not clear what he would do with the remaining 17 percent.

Aside from this hefty share from collections, Ang also gets another 7 percent from the 23 percent given to Pagcor. His share is even bigger than the 5 percent earmarked for Erap’s social fund.

The government, which provides the valuable legal cover for the entire gambling operation of Ang, was assigned a tax share of a measly 5 percent.

Will Reyes expose herself to possible graft charges by succumbing to pressure to sign the onerous contract for presentation to the Senate?

* * *

IN his sworn testimony, Singson mentioned a Guia Gomez as present when he once delivered bags of money to Erap’s house on P. Guevarra St. in San Juan. Also, when asked about the occasions he had seen Ang with Erap, the Ilocano governor cited a meeting at Tagaytay Highlands in the presence of one Laarni Enriquez.

The way the governor mentioned the women, the Blue Ribbon committee would have more than enough reason to summon them to the hearing. Will Pimentel, who had issued subpoenas to minor personalities, order them to appear before the committee?

There might be a little problem. There are reports that at least one of them, Enriquez, had left for abroad. Will Pimentel please check?

* * *

IF Malacañang is really interested in ferreting out the truth, it could take the initiative in forcing the return to the country of Yolanda Ricaforte, the accountant who was identified by Singson as having prepared the ledgers detailing the collection and payment of millions in jueteng payola.

Another person being sought by the Pimentel committee and who had gone abroad is Bong Pineda, reputed jueteng lord from Pampanga. Why is Malacañang apparently afraid to bring back Pineda and Ricaforte?

These are some of the obvious omissions of Malacañang indicating that it is covering up and that there are morsels of truth in the disclosures of Singson.

Even Erap’s statements supposedly calculated to affirm his innocence register negatively. His spin doctors are discovering that it would require a miracle to turn black to white.

* * *

THE departure of prominent persons afraid of being dragged into the jueteng scandal has reportedly contributed to the drain of dollars. Each departure, it was said, required the purchase of millions of dollars, thereby pushing the peso further down in relation to the dollar.

Some bankers talk of the changing of bulging suitcases of pesos to dollars, but would not officially give details.

If a Senate committee is interested, it could look into this side issue that impacts on the battered economy. Under normal procedures, there is a paper trail when such huge amounts are moved. Who will look into it?

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 17, 2000)

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