POSTSCRIPT / March 12, 2006 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Sandigan, 'Forbes' boost Lucio Tan business image

FORBES VOTE: Though unintended, Forbes magazine’s listing taipan Lucio Tan with the world’s top billionaires is an affirmation of the Sandiganbayan’s recent order for the government to lift its 20-year unwarranted sequestration of his assets.

Forbes would not have recognized Tan’s net worth, placed at $1.7 billion, if it had any doubt that his assets — some of them in Allied Bank, Philippine Airlines, Asia Brewery and Philippine National Bank — were illegally amassed or being held by him as dummy for somebody.

The magazine included two other Filipino businessmen — Henry Sy ($1.5 billion) and Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala (($1.3 billion) — in its list of 793 billionaires for 2005. As in the last 11 years, Microsoft founder Bill Gates topped the list at $50 billion.

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TAMA NA PO YAN!: Sequestration, a response of the Aquino revolutionary government to the corruption and cronyism of the fallen dictatorship, targeted businesses funded by ill-gotten wealth or whose equity is actually camouflaged or laundered Marcos money.

The Sandiganbayan found that neither condition existed in Tan’s businesses, prompting it to order last Feb. 14 the Presidential Commission on Good Government to lift its sequestration of his controlling shares in Allied Bank, Foremost Farms, Fortune Tobacco, and Shareholdings Inc.

Smarting from the setback, a PCGG official said the commission would appeal the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court.

Brod, tama na, tigilan na po ninyo. If the PCGG with all its awesome powers failed to prove anything after 20 years, why prolong the gross injustice of living off the fruits of another man’s honest labor?

On a business trip to Shanghai, Tan said through a spokesman in Manila that he was happy with the Sandiganbayan decision because he has always maintained that all his companies and assets were “products of honest toil and long years of hard work.”

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NAKAHIHIYA: The Tan story, as well as some similar sequestration cases, reminds us of the alleged weapons of mass destruction stockpiled kuno in Iraq.

The US invaded the biblical Mesopotamia citing the supposed WMD, among other excuses. As occupation forces, the Americans took full control of every inch of ground. Yet, until now they have not turned up any WMD or even just a hint of one.

In like manner, the PCGG sent its people to take over four Tan companies. Once inside and after turning the firms upside down, inside out, for two decades, they have failed to produce any valid justification for a government takeover.

Now they want to stay longer! Having grown comfortable in their new-found niches in ongoing giant firms, the PCGG occupation forces want to perpetuate the myth of WMD-like violations and continue to live off the oasis which is not theirs in the first place.

Nakahihiya!

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SANDIGAN RULING: This was how the Sandiganbayan said it through Associate Justice Teresita V. Diaz-Baldos (and concurred in by Chairman Ma. Cristina Cortez-Estrada and Associate Justice Rolando B. Jurado):

“The Court finds and so holds that the questioned writs of sequestration were issued without the requisite prima facie factual foundation that the properties covered thereby are ‘ill-gotten’ wealth” (in violation of the Freedom Constitution and the 1987 Constitution).

“Although the said writs cannot be deemed to have been automatically lifted, there is sufficient reason to impel this Court to declare them as null and void and to terminate the government as conservator of the properties covered.

“While the Executive Orders issued in relation to ‘ill-gotten’ wealth are intended to redound to the benefit of the government funds and properties, the PCGG cannot indefinitely seize property, real or personal, to the prejudice of the rights of the ostensible owners.

“This position is the finest application of jurisprudence that ‘sequestration, to be valid, must have factual basis and must accord due process to the parties thereby affected — that said remedies are not meant to create a permanent situation as regards the property subject thereof, or divest ownership or rights, that they are in fact merely provisional and temporary and subsist only until ownership is finally judicially determined.’

“Sequestration — if it is to adhere to constitutional due process — cannot be allowed to hang interminably and forever.”

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BRIGHT IDEA: Malacanang announced yesterday its latest discovery: that Press Freedom pala is not absolute!

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye announced this brilliant idea by way of justifying the Arroyo administration’s recent actions constituting prior restraint (which is nothing but pure and simple censorship) on media.

Sir, everybody knows that. Even high school students, if they are attentive enough, know that “freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press” as guaranteed under the Bill of Rights is not absolute.

Aside from journalists’ own inhibitions, press guilds’ codes, and media outfits’ self-policing measures, limitations to press freedom include existing laws on libel, treason, sedition, torts and damages, respect for privacy and a myriad other concerns.

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WHOSE ENEMY?: If the President’s media experts want to rewrite the well-established tenets of true journalism in a libertarian setting, intending to improve on them, they should come forward with their draft so we can discuss them.

Many of us in the trade do not feel comfortable, or safe, relying on the momentary impulses of policemen or the orders of their superiors affecting media.

As I said earlier in Postscript, if Malacanang is not happy with existing laws reining in the press and setting limitations, it should go to Congress to amend the statutes instead of issuing self-serving proclamations and general orders.

And while they are at it, Malacanang may want to identify the supposed “enemies of the state” against whom recent presidential issuances have warned.

We have to make sure, if only for the sake if clarity and sanity, that the Palace still knows and respects the distinction between “enemies of the state” and enemies of Gloria Arroyo the president.

The two sets of “enemies” may overlap at times, but they are never totally congruent.

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DEBT HOCUS-POCUS: While everybody was distracted by the big to-do about protest marches, proclamations, and such sound and fury signifying something, the debt-encrusted National Power Corp. continued to borrow beyond its capacity to pay.

Without being warned, we taxpayers were pulled deeper into the debt hole dug mainly by the inordinate borrowings of a state power firm whose deliverance via privatization is being unduly delayed.

Napocor’s debt should be a major concern, because it accounts for more than two-thirds of the country’s total budget deficit — money that could be better spent for social services rather than debt servicing.

The last thing we heard, Napocor transferred part of its debt incurred mostly from the Asian Development Bank to the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management (PSALM), an agency tasked by the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) to oversee Napocor’s privatization.

The move was one of the real reasons why Napocor broke even (!) last year. It transferred P200-billion of its P600-billion debt, mostly incurred from the ADB, to PSALM which was later assumed by the national government (in other words, by us taxpayers).

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MORE TO COME: But Napocor again borrowed close to $800 million last year, after which its officials announced that they would borrow another $700 million this year.

And as if the P200-billion debt absorbed last year was not enough, the PSALM said that it would absorb $500 million or P26 billion of Napocor’s remaining debt.

With that depressing news, the breaking even of Napocor looks like plain window dressing to create a false rosy picture for the ailing firm.

Many foreign creditors have expressed concern over the shell game wherein a huge chunk of debt is being removed (and absorbed by the government) while another huge chunk is being slipped back in.

They know that the real reason why Napocor broke even in 2005 was because (1) the national government absorbed P200 billion of Napocor’s debt, and (2) the peso appreciated substantially versus the US dollar.

You bet they also know that the peso appreciated mainly because of the volume and velocity of some $13.5 billion in remittances from Filipinos working abroad.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 12, 2006)

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