POSTSCRIPT / March 10, 2009 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Legacy operators lucky there was no lynch mob

PAY DIRT: If this were the Wild Wild West, there would have been a lynching yesterday at the Senate as estafa victims crying for justice came face to face with a cocky Celso de los Angeles, head of the Legacy group that allegedly had swindled them.

The Senate hearing on the syndicated estafa hit pay dirt when two key Legacy officials testified and gave insider documents on how De los Angeles shuffled company billions like they were personal assets and then allegedly bribed regulatory officials.

The Senate showdown had a dramatic denouement when three elderly women, among thousands of innocent victims, tearfully beseeched a smug De los Angeles to give them back their hard-earned savings. The Legacy boss was unmoved.

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PALACE ASLEEP?: This is not the first instance — nor, we dare say, will it be the last incident — of people who had entrusted their money and their children’s future to pre-need firms having been left holding the proverbial empty bag.

So brazen and so systematic has this kind of massive swindling been going on it is amazing that regulatory agencies, mandated to protect the public, seem to be totally unaware of it.

Going after those who break the law is a function of the Executive, who is sworn to enforce the law. But it took the Senate, whose job is merely to enact laws, to go to the bottom of the massive swindling to right the wrong.

Either President Gloria Arroyo has been asleep while the Legacy and other scandals raged — or she is no longer sure she has the moral ascendancy to go after thieves conniving with government officials.

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FUMING MAD: An obviously irate Sen. Mar Roxas, chairman of the Senate committee conducting the hearing, said that the Senate will not let De los Angeles and his ilk get away with it.

On the seeming lapses, if not outright connivance of regulatory officials, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said that commissioner Jesus Martinez of the Securities and Exchange Commission must resign for mishandling the case.

If Martinez ever heard of delicadeza, he better file a hurried resignation, and President Arroyo should accept it at once. Or she can just fire him outright.

Roxas also admonished a young lawyer of the Department of Justice, who appeared to have not been up to his job of investigating the Legacy irregularities, to attend to his duties.

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BRIBERY?: The two witnesses who gave damning testimony and evidence were Caroline Hiñola, former chief executive officer of Legacy Consolidated Plans Inc., and Namnama Pasetes-Santos, chief LCPI finance officer.

Hiñola told the Senate that Legacy bought a P5-million house and lot in Parañaque for Martinez, who allegedly gave it to his son. She showed copies of P3 million worth of vouchers and checks to prove it.

She also said that she gave Martinez P1.475 million in November 2007 as payment for a Ford Expedition that De los Angeles was buying from the SEC official. The amount allegedly came from the Rural Bank of San Jose, a Legacy affiliate.

If true, this may partly explain why Martinez appeared somewhat lenient with Legacy. But De los Angeles and Martinez denied the allegations, the latter saying he never owned or sold an Expedition.

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PERSONAL EXPENSES: Chief LCPI finance officer Santos said that De los Angeles spent close to P95 million from Legacy funds for personal expenses, including wages of house help and birthday parties.

Roxas showed a copy of an electricity bill of De los Angeles’s former wife that was paid by Legacy. He also questioned the quick transfer of ownership to De los Angeles’ wife of the businessman’s residence in Alabang.

Santos added that De los Angeles, now mayor of Sto. Domingo, Albay, used Legacy funds for his 2007 election campaign, and spent more than P39 million for travel.

In 2006, she added, around P30 million was disbursed to De los Angeles, in cash or through checks, and deposited to his personal accounts.

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POLL EXPENSES: Reading from her affidavit, Santos said that some P38 million was also disbursed in checks to De los Angeles “for election purposes” when he was campaigning to be mayor.

More than P1 million more was disbursed from LCPI for other election expenses, she added. In 2008 when he was already out of the company, De los Angeles allegedly received another P19 million.

If true, this could cause De los Angeles’ ouster from office and disqualification for life. 

Santos also said De los Angeles paid P1.8 million to Parañaque Rep. Ed Zialcita as consultancy fee. But the congressman denied having been a consultant or having received fees from De los Angeles.

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ANOTHER CASE: The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, meanwhile, has filed its second case of syndicated estafa against De los Angeles and other Legacy officials.

Hiñola and Santos, who testified and submitted documents yesterday, were included in the charge sheet. They could become state witnesses.

The complaint talked of P487 million deposited by clients of First Interstate Bank in Leyte, and allegedly siphoned off by the accused bank officials. The BSP said that while FIT records showed more than P487 million deposited with it, only P1 million was left by the time it was closed last December.

The first estafa case was filed Feb. 26 involving P1 billion worth of deposits raided from the Rural Bank of DARBCI, which has branches in General Santos City and Cebu City.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 10, 2009)

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