POSTSCRIPT / June 10, 2001 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Ramos on AFP fund: 5.484B is with Erap!

WE don’t know if we’re getting any nearer to the missing multibillion-peso trust fund for the modernization of the armed forces, but we’re getting some interesting leads.

In a meeting Friday, former President Fidel V. Ramos told us that the question of where the money is should be directed to his successor Erap Estrada. He said P5.484 billion (not P8 billion) of it was left intact with Erap.

Ramos was being asked about the supposedly P8-billion trust fund because it was during his term that the 240-hectare Fort Bonifacio was sold for P34,000 per square meter in what was dubbed as the local real estate deal of the century.

* * *

THE missing trust fund has been in the news lately because of the predicament of poorly equipped soldiers and policemen being pitted against Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Basilan-Sulu brandishing superior weaponry and faster seacraft.

At least 15 soldiers (not to mention the civilian casualties and the property damage) have been reported killed in lopsided encounters, while not one body from the enemy side has been brought home by government forces.

Public sentiment has been building up against whoever kept or diverted the money from the Fort Bonifacio sale earmarked exclusively by RA 7898 to modernize the armed forces.

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IT appears that with Ramos’ now pointing to Estrada, the latter will have to do some explaining even while under detention on plunder charges for other money matters.

Showing blurred (unreadable in parts) copies of treasury documents, Ramos told us that:

  • The P7.817 billion expected from the sale (rounded to P8 billion in media reports) fetched only P5.484 billion because some expenses had to be deducted from the proceeds and the buyer of Fort Bonifacio had refused to pay for one section taken over by squatters.
  • Although the P5.484 billion was collected during his tenure, Ramos did not put it in a trust account because his administration decided to leave its management to the incoming Estrada administration.
  • But the Estrada administration did not proceed with the AFP modernization during the 2-1/2 years it was in power. Then Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno gave it low priority, postponing it “for a better time when the financial crisis is over.”

* * *

SO where are the billions for the poor soldiers? It seems that it would take more than Ramos and Estrada to provide quick answers to all the questions.

Ramos claims having difficulty accessing official document since he turned over Malacañang to Estrada in 1998.

On the other hand, with his state of mind and his legal and other problems, Estrada may not have ready explanations for what he did or did not do with the billions that Ramos claimed to have passed on to him.

* * *

OUR best bet, it seems, is for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to bridge the information gap by ordering her budget secretary to make a public detailed report supported by clear, authentic documents.

One starting point for the Arroyo budget office is Special Account No. A5514-170, where P5,484,705,000 of the proceeds has been placed. This is the account number in the blurred copy of the Bureau of Treasury Journal Voucher that Ramos showed us.

Is the money, although much less than the P8 billion expected, still in Special Account No. A5514-170? If it’s not there, where is it? A trust fund cannot be used for something not intended by law.

If it’s intact in that trust account, why did Estrada sit on it instead of using it to pursue the AFP modernization? In which bank was it deposited and who got the usual commission?

* * *

EVEN with Arroyo helping to locate and use the missing billions, taxpayers must still demand explanations from Ramos and Estrada for certain interesting details.

From 1995 to 1997, the Ramos administration collected not just P5.484 billion but a total of P30,359,605,589 for the sale of Fort Bonifacio.

In the handwritten computation given us by Ramos, he deducted from the P30-billion collection some expenses amounting to P14.698 billion, leaving a balance of P15.67 billion.

* * *

HOW come only P5.484 billion is left of the more than P30-billion collected? Ramos explained that about half of it, or P14.689 billion, had gone to expenses. These included money given to contiguous towns as their share in the sale.

After these expenses were deducted, P15.67 billion was left. Only 35 percent of this balance, or P5.484 billion, went to Special Account No. A5514-170 meant for the modernization of the AFP.

* * *

IN most official communication between Malacañang and military top brass, the working figure for the AFP trust fund from the sale of Fort Bonifacio was P7.817 billion, not the P5.484 billion now being cited by Ramos.

That was a drastic reduction of some P2.333 billion from the original figure.

The explanation officially given for this 30-percent drop in proceeds is that the Fort Bonifacio Development Corp., the buyers’ group organized by Metro Pacific, held back P2.333 billion because of the failure of the Estrada administration to remove squatters from the remaining 64 hectares.

It is not clear if the Estrada administration had formally agreed to the reduction of the sale price by P2.333 billion. But many questions have been raised about amending the terms of reference, including a big price reduction (benefiting the winner), after the public bidding and the award of the contract.

* * *

ASKED about this price reduction after the bidding, Ramos said the remaining 64 hectares should have been delivered clean to the buyer to enable the government to collect the balance of P2.333 billion.

He said that he relocated the squatters during his tenure and left it clean and ready for delivery when the Estrada administration took over. He deplored that squatters were allowed to occupy the area again.

But even with squatters getting in the way, we think it did not make business sense to just give up collecting P2.333 billion on the pretext that squatters refused to leave the area bought by the Metro Pacific group.

* * *

COMMON sense dictates that to collect P2.333 billion, the Estrada administration should have been ready to spend a little money for relocating the squatters.

Assuming an exorbitant P100 million budget for relocation, that expense was nothing compared to the P2.333 billion to be collected.

The big question is why Erap agreed not to collect the P2.333 million which was due the government. The bigger question is: Who made a killing?

* * *

OVER at the Philippine Communications Satellite Corp. (Philcomsat), another corporate war sizzles, with corporate secretary Luis Lokin Jr. again coming under fire from some members of the board.

Director Erlinda Ilusorio Bildner, for one, has written President Arroyo posthaste to nip a reported plan of Malacañang to nominate Lokin (with two others) to represent the government on the board.

She alerted the President that Lokin was allegedly instrumental in installing an Estrada-appointed board that had managed to hang on despite unfavorable rulings of the courts, including the Supreme Court. She linked him to a P1-billion land transaction that the board has stopped and ordered investigated.

Bildner also suggested the privatization of the firm, whose sequestration has been lifted. She said investors could be encouraged to come in if the bleeding of the company is stopped and certain entrenched individuals with selfish interests are removed.

Philcomsat is wholly owned by the Philippine Overseas Telecommunications Corp. (POTC), a holding company owned 35 percent by the government. Since 1986, the government has been nominating four of the nine members of the Philcomsat board.

The private sector/original shareholders holding 65 percent are: Potenciano Ilusorio, 18.1 percent; Manuel Nieto, 13.12 percent; estate of Honorio Poblador Jr., 12.38 percent; estate of Jose L. Africa, 7.13 percent; estate of Roberto S. Benedicto, 7.13 percent; Juan Ponce Enrile, 6.63 percent; and M. Elizalde, .57 percent.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 10, 2001)

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