POSTSCRIPT / February 9, 2003 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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GMA to press closure of Marcos, coco cases

CLOSING CHAPTERS: Before she steps down on June 30, 2004, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wants to see closure of two major controversies that have hounded a succession of four administrations.

The President told some columnists over lunch yesterday that she wants to close the last chapters of the cases involving the Marcos Wealth and the Coconut Levy Funds two scandals involving trillions of pesos enough to wipe out the budget deficit, trim the foreign debt balance, and restore government finances to even keel.

She did not elaborate, but it was understood she meant that before she leaves Malacanang, she wants to see substantial ill-gotten wealth that had been amassed during the Marcos dictatorship returned to their rightful owners.

In answer to a question, she said the comparatively newer plunder case against her predecessor Erap Estrada was not among the major cases she had marked for closure within her term. The case will take its own course, she said.

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SEIZE DIRTY BILLIONS: Marcos assets found to have been illegally acquired will be seized by the government. As for the coco funds, the coconut farmers in whose name the levy was collected stand to benefit in a big way from the billions that will be taken from those illegally using the money.

But under a compromise reported months ago as being finalized, only part of the coco funds will be “surrendered” to the government with some powerful businessmen and politicians retaining a sizeable chunk.

The President did not spell out how she intended to terminate the cases that have been pending in the courts, another branch of government. Having renounced political ulterior motives, however, the President is expected to use her power and influence to speed up the cases.

The freeing of billions into the money stream is expected to massively stimulate the economy and enable President Arroyo to make a glorious exit.

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TAKE OVER NAIA-3: With only 16 short months left of the term she had inherited, President Arroyo is obviously in a hurry.

She also said yesterday that she had ordered a study on how she could open the scandal-rocked Naia-3 (Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport) even before the Supreme Court rules on the legality of the build-operate contracts for the $650-million terminal.

One approach, she said, is to manifest to the high court the government intention to open and operate Naia-3 without loss of valuable time. If the court says No, we desist, she said.

The idea of opening Naia-3 under the aegis of the government had been broach in media by Trade Secretary Mar Roxas and Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon. They presumably have noble reasons — tourism growth for Gordon and foreign investments for Roxas.

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TAKEOVER BLUES: Even as bystanders, we cringe at the thought of government rushing a takeover of the project before a ruling comes down from the Supreme Court. Consider these:

  • The government would spend at least $170 million to finish the terminal: $100 million to complete the structure (because at least 42 items have been identified by the Japanese quality assurance inspector as “outstanding”) and $70 million to pay Takenaka Corp. of Japan, the general contractor that stopped work last Dec. 3 because if has not been paid by the contract-holder Philippine International Air Terminals Corp. (Piatco) for several months’ work.
  • The government has no money and, more importantly, there is no appropriation for the project. To borrow would take months. With the SC court ruling expected by April anyway, is immediate government takeover wise?
  • Should the SC decide in favor of Piatco, i.e. declare the contracts valid, government takeover in effect would have bailed out Piatco, which had run out of money to finish the project after Fraport AG, its German partner, stopped the fund transfusion.
  • This is a BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) project wherein the government is barred by law from spending anything. A takeover with its consequent spending will turn the whole situation around.

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FRAPORT THREAT: If after its takeover the SC rules in favor of Piatco, the government would then have to negotiate with Piatco for recovery of these expenses. Another court case? Another round of delays?

What would foreign investors say? And what foreign investor would come in to finish the project for the government and be the terminal operator if there is the slightest chance that the SC might rule in favor of Piatco?

President Arroyo declined to comment on the threat of Fraport to take the case to the World Bank for arbitration. She said any statement from her might complicate back-channel moves to work out a solution.

But we think Fraport is making such threats because it wants to lay the basis for its being considered a “builder in good faith,” which under the law means it would get its money back.

Also, considering its own business and political problems back in Hesse, Germany, Fraport has to do and say something to mollify angry stockholders. Maybe it also wants to push Malacanang to move a little faster as its constituents are getting restless.

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P2-MILLION PLUNDER: At the Sandiganbayan, meanwhile, the misfortune (if it be misfortune) of former San Juan Mayor Jinggoy Estrada is that he is a son of former President Erap Estrada who is facing charges for the heinous crime of plunder.

Having supposedly received part of the millions that his father allegedly received from jueteng collections, Jinggoy is now detained at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City on plunder charges together with the elder Estrada.

You know how much he supposedly got? The Ombudsman who is prosecuting the case told the court that Jinggoy received P2 million in jueteng payola — P1 million in January 2000 and another P1 million in February 2000.

But plunder involves the illegal and injurious amassing of at least P50 million. We wonder how Jinggoy’s allegedly receiving P2 million can be stretched to resemble plunder, a crime punishable by life sentence to death.

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JUDICIAL DISCRETION: No wonder Jinggoy is now asking the Sandiganbayan to temporarily release him on bail.

He says he does pose any danger to society, that he has not injured or killed anybody, that the possibility of his taking flight is nil, and that he will continue to behave while out on bail.

His lawyer says that it is within the discretion of the Sandiganbayan to grant Jinggoy bail, independently of what it wants to do with the petition of Erap’s lawyers (their client refuses to recognize the court trying him) for the former president to be moved to his San Juan residence on house arrest.

Erap himself has been appealing for the temporary release on bail of his son and the lawyer of the foundation where some of the allegedly plundered millions in question had been traced. The lawyer simply accepted the money for the foundation, he said.

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BAIL OKAY LIKELY: Without prejudging Jinggoy’s guilt or innocence, we think the Sandiganbayan justices will know how to appreciate this picture of a son being made to account, in effect, for the alleged misdeeds of his father.

We won’t be surprised if the anti-graft court, if only for humanitarian reasons, grants the bail petition under certain conditions.

If there are other detainees elsewhere facing criminal charges and the premises are similar to those in the case of Jinggoy, we think it is humane and wise to also allow them temporary freedom on bail.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 9, 2003)

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