Chavit Singson in Philippine History: Part Two – Eye of a Political Firestorm

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Chapter 4

“Cinderella of Philippine Politics”

In 1986, when massive street protests drove Ferdinand E. Marcos away from
Malacañang Palace, the official resi-dence of the Philippine president, Chavit Singson was Provincial Governor of Ilocos Sur and Erap Estrada was Municipal Mayor of San Juan, Metro Manila. Both Chavit and Erap, who had been friends for close to two decades by then, swore to each other to remain in their respective posts when Cory Aquino, the “housewife” who succeeded Marcos as President, began swatting away the incumbent elective local officials, like political flies, throughout the country.

“They are freeloaders,” said Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr., the new Local Government Secretary of the Cory Aquino government, in reference to the “overstaying” officials.

Hindi tayo bababa sa pwesto,” Erap assured Chavit over a glass of whiskey.

“Over my dead body, pare” Chavit replied.

After two weeks, Erap relinquished his post, and Chavit did the same after another two weeks. There was no bloodshed, either in San Juan or in Ilocos Sur.

Erap went on to become a Senator a year later. Chavit reclaimed his seat at the Ilocos Sur provincial capitol in 1988.

Erap’s election to the Philippine Senate in 1987 was eye-catching. He was the lone survivor among opposition senatorial candi-dates. No candidate that contended against a Cory-supported candidate could quite withstand the “Cory Magic” like he did. At that time Cory was so popular that, pundits chuckled, her endorsement could make even a dog win in an election.

In the Senate, Erap liked to trip Nene, a fellow neophyte senator, on the floor when-ever there was an opportunity for it.

“Would the distinguished gentleman from San Juan yield to a few clarificatory ques-tions?”

With that standard line, Nene opened his interpellation of Erap (sponsoring his pet Kalabaw Bill).

“With pleasure, Your Honor,” also a standard line. But Erap would add a novelty: “And thank you for removing me from my post in San Juan, my being jobless forced me to run for the Senate.”

But being part of an exclusive club could melt icy-cold rapport among its members. Being senator had its feel-good effect. Lots of it. Probably good enough for one to see value in the other. In time Erap and Nene became mag-kumpadre and, from the looks of it, perhaps friends.

“The President was kind enough to invite me as one of the sponsors in Jinggoy’s wed-ding,” Nene recalled. Jinggoy, Erap’s son with wife Loi and who would also rise to become senator, wed Precy Vitug in 1989. (Among Roman Catholic church members in the Philippines—who constitute around 80 % of the population—being a sponsor in at least three of seven sacraments of the faith, such as marriage or matrimony, entitles one the privilege of being kumpadre (male) or kuma-dre (female) of  the parents receiving the sacrament.)

“I returned the compliment when Koko,” Nene’s son, and now also a senator, “wed Jewel Lobaton, a former Miss Binibining Pilipinas Universe title-holder, in January 2000 with Erap as principal sponsor,” Nene said.

When Erap became president, media played up an anecdote about Nene’s “No ID, No Entry” experience at the Palace. The senator was subjected to a rigid security check by the presidential guards. Nene felt slighted by the treatment. “But except for that small incident,” he said, “I have no complaints about the President.”

Erap explained that in his administration, the rules equally applied to everybody, whether they were messengers or senators. After all he promised in his inaugural speech that friendship and kinship would not influence his official functions. Getting through the palace gates had never been easy—something which Erap highlighted in his plunder trial 4 years later to bring home the point that jueteng collectors could not just freely see him in office, much less deliver to him bundles upon bundles of jueteng money. Of course, after a while, the members of the so-called “Midnight Cabinet” who freely roamed the palace grounds at night time would also become public knowledge.

But let’s not move too fast. Let’s get back to when his political star was yet on the rise.

It was easy to say Erap had his own political magic. Adored by the Filipino masses, the lone oppositionist in the Senate had like-wise attracted allies from outside the sup-posedly “dumb masa”—as former Supreme Court Justice Isagani Cruz called it—social class. One of them was colleague Orly Mercado, another Cory-backed senator. Together, they quietly started plotting Erap’s way to the top. An emerging two-member political party got around to casting and re-casting its tentative shapes.

The Erap-Orly political semen eventually sired the birth of Partido ng Masang Pilipino, or PMP.

In 1990, the PMP had 2 members. In 1991, it had 21 members. In 1992, it bagged the second highest office in the Philippines.

Fielding Erap as candidate for Vice President in that year’s national elections, the PMP rose to become a socio-political magnet and its lead character having earned the tag of “Cinderella of Philippine politics,” as a Philippine newspaper editorial put it. He won the vice presidency. He was on his way to the top.

Eddie Ramos—FVR to many—Cory’s  trusted Armed Forces Chief of Staff and later National Defense Secretary, succeeded her at the throne.

Like many of those who comprised the “schooled” segment of Philippine popula-tion, Eddie was not fond of Erap, but both being choices of the electorate, FVR had to co-exist with the Vice President. He proceeded to create a customized office for Erap.

And so it happened that, from 1992 to 1997, Erap was Chairman of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC). Erap came to be known as anti-crime czar. He found lots of action in the job and relished it, although he hardly showed the same level of enthusiasm when it was time to break down issues of national interest.

In a letter to Philippine Daily Inquirer editors, Nick Lagustan, then FVR’s spokesman, said: “Vice President Estrada attended most of the (cabinet) meetings, even if he habitually left the Cabinet Room well before adjournment, leaving his chief of staff, Robert Aventajado, to take notes.”

From the image he developed in the movies as champion of the oppressed and refuge of the downtrodden, Erap seamlessly transi-tioned to being the real deal, one who was on top of restoring order in the crime-infested streets of Manila.

And, as in the movies, this role needed a supporting cast.

At PACC, Erap put together an elite team of law enforcers led by now senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson. Referred to by his band of operatives as “71”—being a member, along with fellow senator Gringo Honasan, of class 1971 of the Philippine Military Academy, Ping had a solid account of his work in the field.

He had been a Philippine National Police (PNP) Provincial Director since 1988 (with stints in the provinces of Isabela, Cebu and a few months in Laguna). “I gladly accepted the offer to join PACC since I was not happy anyway with my Laguna assignment,” Ping said in a 2009 speech delivered on the Senate floor.

Nevertheless, the urge to look good had put the life and limb of otherwise innocent by-standers at risk. Barely a month in their posts, PACCmen murdered Elmer and Jef-frey Pueda, Luis Matro and Leonardo Mon-talvo, according to a congressional report.

Three months later, PACCmen—having bungled a rescue attempt involving two kidnap victims (scions of wealthy Filipino-Chinese families) in which Galicia gang members, the suspected kidnappers, killed the victims, and pressed to make amends with the shocked and hurt Filipino-Chinese community—hunted down in Batangas the perpetrators, only to bungle it one more time when they tagged the wrong man, erroneously killing Wilfredo Aala, an over-seas contract worker.

PACC also matched the methods of crimi-nals. If the Galicia gang could kill two youngsters to get what they wanted, PACC-men—and specifically Ping—could cause the death of a mother and her child to force innocent people to reveal information, if Jinggoy and Kit Mateo, one of Ping’s former aides, were to be believed.

In 2009, Jinggoy released a video of the bed-consigned Kit Mateo—gasping with his last few breaths—in which he said (and as reported by ABS CBN that “Lacson…ordered the murders of a…woman and her 8-year-old daughter by throwing them out of a helicopter, which was flying near Corregidor island. He said the two were relatives of then Red Scorpion Gang leader Joey De Leon and were killed after they refused to tell Lacson the whereabouts of De Leon.”

In 1995 PACC figured in a major controversy. Its operatives gunned down 11 suspected criminals in what official records said was a “shootout.” Subsequent investigations, however, including the one conducted by the Philippine Senate, have raised the possibility that the casualties were victims of “rubout” rather than shootout.

Despite suspicions that PACC was taking shortcuts in dealing with suspected crimi-nals, Ping became the new darling of a crime-weary public, especially when his operatives killed Joey De Leon, the reported leader of the dreaded and notorious Red Scorpion gang. This bandit reportedly victi-mized with alarming regularity wealthy Fili-pino-Chinese businessmen.

No wonder Ping would soon become the toast of the Chinese community in the Philippines. His boss, Erap, the Vice Presi-dent, basked in the limelight even more.

Although Erap, as crime-czar, had been criminally charged for the death of a number of people, some of which were PACC’s vic-tims of either mistaken identity or summary executions, people in general did not care. For one, he was too popular to be trashed by public opinion. For another, Ping and his PACCmen were seen, as one gang leaders fell one after the other, as putting their lives on the line in the service of peace and order. And still for another, the criminal cases against Erap were settled out of court as soon as they were filed, using, in some instances, private funds.

Erap ran away with the win as Presidential candidate in the 1998 elections. He received 43 % of the total vote. Up to that point, no other presidential candidate has enjoyed such an overwhelming mandate.

Chapter 5

The “Midnight Cabinet”

At noon on June 30, 1998, Erap took his oath as the 13th President of the Republic of the Philippines in what promised to be one of the most auspicious of times.

It was, after all, the country’s centennial year. On June 12, 1898, Emilio Aguinaldo declared Independence from the colonial government of the United States of America which, after a mock battle against the Spanish navy at the Manila Bay in May 1898, had just grabbed imperial control over the Philippine Islands from Spain.

The nation was in a celebration mood. After two presidential elections—in a span of 12 years—where the results have been close and contentious, the nation this time witnessed the rise of a leader with an undisputed voter support. Observers noted that the results, for a change, augured well for promoting unity among the citizenry.

When, in his inaugural speech, Erap boomed that in his administration there will be no “kumare, kumpare, kaibigan (friends), kamag-anak (relatives),” his audience app-lauded in approval.

The team he brought with him to office elicited mixed reviews. The Philippine Cen-ter of Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) repor-ted that “Erap, after five months in office, has appointed over 60 people to such [dubious] positions, so many in fact that the Office of the President has trouble keeping track of them, so many it has become laughable, like invitations to a wedding party that got out of hand. The list of presidential consultants, assistants and advisers includes some really worthwhile individuals whose talents can be put to good use, but also a lot of other hangers-on from business, politics, the movies and, Malacañang insiders swear, God knows where else.”

One of those who might be considered as management talents was Prod Laquian, whom Erap appointed as Chief of Staff mid-way into his short-lived term, supposedly to bring order to what had been reported as messy (read: turf conflicts) day-to-day con-duct of business inside the Palace.

Then a Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Canada, Prod brought to his Malacañang post sterling academic and work credentials. He had a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did some consultancy work at the United Nations and the International Development Research Center, among other international organizations.

Although born and raised in the Philippines, Prod had relocated to Canada, eventually acquired a Canadian citizenship, and was in the process of re-acquiring Philippine citi-zenship when he forced himself to quit. He did that by publicly shaming his boss.

Talking to members of the Manila Overseas Club in March 2000, Prod was reported to have commented that, among other things, “Erap spent long hours drinking with shady characters.”

Laquian added: “There have been reports… that most of the major decisions made by the president were made at the ungodly hour of 4 o’clock in the morning after he had had some sessions with his friends with monosyl-labic surnames,” Kyodo News said.

Although he explained later that his verbal ejaculations were nothing more than pro-ducts of light banter, Prod nevertheless knew that his Palace foray was over. He served Erap for 42 days, probably even less.

Erap bristled. Hot Manila posted: “In the aftermath of Laquian’s departure, a furious Estrada went on to summon reporters to a very unpresidential press conference where he proceeded to slander his undearly departed chief of staff. Spouting the lan-guage of a palengkera, Estrada said La-quian was a whoreson (a poor translation of one of Filipino’s strongest curse words) who was a henpecked husband (ander di saya) and was mentally malfunctioning (sira ulo—another choice Filipino imprecation).”

That Erap presided over a “Midnight Cabi-net” was a matter of public knowledge. “I wasn’t saying anything that everybody didn’t know,” Laquian commented on what he said.

In his International Herald Tribune report on November 3, 2000, Thomas Fuller wrote, quoting former Erap aides, how Malacañang looked like during those times:

“It is the story of Mr. Estrada’s disdain for the day-to-day tasks of running a government: his refusal to hold regular cabinet meetings and his unwilling-ness to read government reports, newspapers or magazines. During his first two years in office, the president missed appointments and skipped speeches. After hours, when much of the business of government was conducted, family members, corporate figures and friends congregated at the presidential palace, blurring the line between private socializing and public duties. Mr. Estrada’s critical shortcoming, former colleagues say, is his inability to reconcile his presidential obligations with his personal excesses: his late-night drinking sessions and gambling. ‘There are basic flaws in him that would have been fine if he were not president,’ said Karina David, who served 15 months in the Estrada administration as the housing secretary.”

More Fuller:

“As Mr. Estrada’s administration wore on, the president’s friends, family and business associates joined discussions. ‘His classmates, his relatives, his children were there all over the place,’ Ms. David said. Another former member of the administration added: ‘The problem wasn’t that the president had people over for drinks. The problem was that there were unsavory characters around who wanted to cut deals.’ There was little that could distract the president during these drinking and eating sessions, based on Mr. Singson’s recollection of one such incident. Mr. Singson, whose allegations of gambling payoffs led to the impeachment proceedings, recounted one  particular drinking session when the foreign secretary, Domingo Siazon, entered the presidential mansion to request that Mr.  Estrada attend a scheduled speech. Mr. Siazon informed the president that there would be many members of the diplomatic corps in attendance and that they were all expecting him to attend. ‘No,’ Mr. Estrada replied in his characteristic gruff manner. ‘Zamora will read my speech,’ he said, referring to the executive secretary. Mr. Siazon left the room but returned several minutes later. ‘If you could reconsider, Mr. President, there are foreign digni-taries waiting,’ Mr. Singson recalled the foreign secretary as saying. The president refused a second time. Mr. Singson said the president gave no reason for not wanting to attend the function. ‘We were just drinking and eating,’ Mr. Singson said.”

The PCIJ took a look from another angle with an article titled “The Nocturnal President.” Written by Ellen Tordisillas, the piece opens with these paragraphs:

“The meetings take place at night and last until dawn. There, views are traded, strategies prepared, and deals struck. By the time the men at the table stand up and stagger out the door, much has been accomplished that may affect the way things are done in this country. President Joseph Estrada, of course, presides over these meetings. But more often than not, those gathered around him during these caucuses are far from being Cabinet secretaries. Rather, they are his personal friends, some of them buddies of long-standing, such as Ilocos Sur Rep. Luis “Chavit” Singson and Caloocan congressman Luis “Baby” Asistio, with whom, it is said, the president shares a fondness for the pleasures of the good life—gambling,  alcohol and women included. Singson and Asistio, say Malaca-ñang insiders, are among the president’s most constant late-night companions.

“There are other persistent hangers-on, wheeler-dealers like online bingo operator Dante Tan whose BW Resources Corp. has been accused of insider trading and manipulation of the stock market. Certainly, it would seem that ethnic Chinese busi-nessmen are keenly aware that with Estrada, out of sight is out of mind, and are among those that a Palace insider says are fond of ‘slipping in when dark sets in.’

“Ramon Lee, a close associate of Dante Tan and an Estrada election contributor, drops in occasionally, say Malacañang sources. So does Lucio Co, the goateed owner of PureGold duty free stores who was recently accused of being a big-time smuggler. Another fixture of the late-night tet’-a-tet’s is Jaime Dichaves/Dichavez, a fiberglass manufacturer and real estate developer who was recently involved in the corporate coup at Belle Corporation, operator of the controversial jai-alai games. Dichaves, who has no official post except as head of the Malacañang golf club, is another of the President’s most trusted businessmen-friends.

“Also sighted keeping Estrada company at night are presidential adviser on overseas Filipinos William Gatchalian, who has shifted from plastics to airlines and the tourism business, and Eusebio Tanco, who recently acquired the Tiwi-Makiling-Banahaw geo-thermal power plant from the National Power Corporation. Tanco is the brother-in-law of one of the country’s biggest coconut millers, Douglas Lu Yin.

“(But the most trusted—and most reclusive—of the president’s friends is multimillionaire Jacinto ‘Jack’ Ng, owner of Republic Biscuit Corp. or Rebisco and of some hefty real estate. Ng, however, reportedly does not take too well to the night life and is rarely seen in the late-evening socials the president enjoys.)

“Whatever their past with the president and no matter where they come from, these men offer the actor-turned-President a respite from the heavy demands of being the head of state. This they do by keeping him company while he unwinds over drinks; they even sing with him on the karaoke, as well as play mahjong, which could stretch these boys’ nights out way past their usual quitting time if the President is losing. For the country’s chief executive apparently does not take defeat at the gaming table very well.

“But he takes well to recommendations and pieces of advice offered by his friends during these midnight sessions, say some government officials. Indeed, they even say a number of presidential decisions with wide-ranging implications have been reached not during the Cabinet meetings that are usually held once a month, but during the informal discussions that take place while the President relaxes with his pals, who are not exactly without business interests to advance and defend.

“That, say the officials, has made for policies and appointments done on the fly, actions that come not from careful thinking and consultations with experts, but from what appear to be off-the-top-of-the-head remarks of private individuals, who may or may not have been inebriated when they made their suggestions. For example, the use of pension funds of the Government Service Insurance System and the Social Security System for corporate takeovers was the bright idea broached on one of those late evenings with presidential friend Mark Jimenez, a shadowy businessman wanted for illegal campaign contributions in the U.S. Jimenez is reportedly a mean singer at the karaoke and is an occasional ‘good time’ associate of Estrada.

“Then again, perhaps this could only be expected of a presidency in which decision-making is seemingly dependent on the interplay not so much of ideas but of the vested interests of individuals who align themselves in loose blocs. The ‘Midnight Cabinet’ is just one among the many groups that compete for the President’s attention, groups that have their respective trump cards to play whenever they feel someone else is gaining precious ground, or simply whenever they feel that the timing is right. There are no rules and no guarantees in this game, after all, and a bloc cannot hope to keep bending the President’s ear for too long.”

In another PCIJ article, published in late 2000, titled “The Company He Keeps,” author Yvonne T. Chua describes Erap’s midnight friends (mostly ethnic Chinese), as follows:

“Charlie ‘Atong’ Ang gained notoriety when he was caught on videotape gambling with Estrada, then vice president, at the Casino Filipino at the Heritage Hotel. The tape was released by former movie and television board chair Manuel Morato at the peak of the 1998 presidential campaign.

“Estrada was said to have distanced himself from the 43-year-old Ang when he was handed an unflattering dossier that detailed Ang’s supposed involvement in criminal activities. But somehow, Ang managed to worm his way back into the President’s good graces.

“Last year, Ang became chief executive officer of Fontana Resort and Country Club, a membership club that boasts of villas, a water park and a nine-hole golf course at Clark, Pampanga. According to Singson, Estrada is one of the owners of Fontana, as well as the now-defunct Fontainbleau, which Fonta-na bought out.

“Ang is also consultant of the Philippine Amuse-ment and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) on jai alai  operations. His company, Power Management and Consultancy, is paid P500,000 a day, excluding bonuses.

“Ang told the Senate in October that another of his companies, Prominent Management and Marketing, is a ‘consultant’ of PAGCOR on Bingo 2-Ball, a lega-lized form of jueteng. It was Ang’s decision to award the Bingo 2-Ball franchise in Ilocos Sur to Singson’s cousin and long-time foe, former Rep. Eric Singson, that had triggered the governor’s rampage, which quickly exploded into the jueteng controversy.

“Lucio Lao Co topped the list of 14 suspected major smugglers ordered investigated in 1999 by no less than Estrada himself.

“Co’s Puregold Duty Free Shop had come under fire when it bagged the contracts to run the govern-ment’s duty-free shops in Davao, Cebu, Laoag and Clark without a public bidding. The businessman was subsequently accused of smuggling fake Ma-ling pork luncheon meat, Hope and Champion ciga-rettes, and Fundador brandy.

“The goateed Co also became known as the ‘chicken king’ for shiploads of chicken that he supposedly imported from the United States duty-free then diverted to Metro Manila retail outlets.

“A resident of Paco, Manila, Co’s family made a fortune from importing cheap glassware from Indo-nesia. Co himself controls RN Development Corp., which owns the majority shares of Fontana. He is also a director of exploration firm Alcorn Petroleum & Minerals Corp. (APMC).

“Co is associated with FVC Realty and Development Corp., which holds the title to Laarni Enriquez’s residence at 771 Harvard St. in Wack-Wack, Mandaluyong. The property was formerly under the name of Jacinto Ng, another Estrada friend.

“Co once used Luneta as a helipad, to the chagrin of friends and park goers. He is also known for being formerly close to socialite Rosemarie ‘Baby’ Arenas.

“William Gatchalian, he of the Erap-like pompadour and mustache, is at present in trouble after business tycoon Lucio Tan, to whom he turned over control of Air Philippines Corp., discovered ficti-tious multimillion-peso purchases by the airline company.

“In February, he also closed Philippine Interna-tional Airways Inc. (PhilAir), a firm he formed when he lost majority control of Air Philippines, and is in the process of disposing of the firm’s 15 planes.

“During the Senate hearings, Singson described Gatchalian as among the President’s gambling buddies, and among the most frequent losers ‘because he didn’t really know how to play.’ Despite his recent streak of bad luck, Gatchalian is said to remain a frequent Malacañang visitor.

“Named presidential adviser on overseas Filipinos workers, Gatchalian built a fortune making plastic products, earning him the title ‘Plastics King.’ His plastics firm Wellex has expanded so rapidly—and especially since Estrada became president—that opposition congressman and former investment banker Oscar Moreno has identified it among the companies that have made a killing ‘largely because of their special ties with the President.’

“Since 1998, Gatchalian has forayed into leisure-oriented businesses, buying up Waterfront Philip-pines Inc., which operates the Waterfront Mactan Casino Hotel and Waterfront Cebu City Hotel; Fort Ilocandia Hotel in Ilocos Norte; and Davao Insular Hotel (which ceased operations in November).

“He also has shares in Forum Pacific Inc., Philippine Estates Corp., Petrochemicals Corp. of Asia-Pacific, Plastic City Industrial Corp., Wellex Industrial Corp., Rexlon Industrial Corp., Kennex Corp., Pacific Plastic Corp., MPC Plastic Corp., International Polymer Corp., Recovery Development Corp., Pacific Rehouse Corp., Orient Pacific Corp., Philfoods Asia Inc., Sun-Star Manila Publishing, Forum Exploration Inc., Cophil Drilling, and Wellex Petroleum Corp.

“Once considered a fake Filipino, Gatchalian fought his controversial citizenship case before the courts for nearly 20 years. In the eighties, the Bureau of Internal Revenue accused his companies of failing to pay P87.2 M income, sale and compensating taxes. In addition, he allegedly owed Meralco P49.8 M arising from 88 tampering cases since 1981.

“Lucio Tan has been friends with the President since Estrada’s days as San Juan mayor. Although the tobacco magnate did not appear on the official list of Estrada’s campaign contributors in the 1998 elections, his brother, Harry, did. Nevertheless, Lucio Tan is said to have forked over P1.5 B to Estrada’s campaign kitty.

“In return, Estrada worked for Tan’s election as president of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a position Tan had coveted but had eluded him for 20 years.

“Born in 1934 to a struggling immigrant family in Naga, Tan worked his way through college, set up a business dealing with scrap in the late 1950s, and also found employment in a cigarette factory, where he was assigned to buy leaf tobacco in the Ilocos provinces. This was where Tan probably encoun-tered the young congressman Ferdinand Marcos, says one of Tan’s long-time associate.

“He formed Fortune Tobacco in the 1970s, which prospered with the generous incentives he obtained from Marcos’s martial-law government. He has since branched out to other fields—banking, beer manu-facturing, agriculture, realty, chemicals, travel, liquor, textiles, and hotel—and is considered the country’s wealthiest man. Recently, he acquired Philippine National Bank and three public listed companies: Baguio Gold Holdings Corp., Macro-Asia Corp., and Asian Pacific Equity Corp. (now renamed Tanduay Inc.).

“Tan was believed to have been one of Marcos’s fronts. Marcos was believed to own in reality 60 % of Shareholdings Inc., which owns shares of Fortune Tobacco, Asia Brewery, Allied Bank and Foremost Farms.

“In 1992, Tan acquired the beleaguered Philippine Airlines. Estrada threw his support behind PAL in its dispute with two Taiwan airlines that resulted in the cancellation of Manila’s air agreement with Taipei. For keeping PAL afloat, Tan was hailed a ‘hero’ by the President, to the consternation of airline workers who had filed labor cases against the firm.

“Estrada has also honored Tan as the among the country’s biggest taxpayers, despite a P27-billion tax evasion case against Tan’s Fortune Tobacco Firm. Last September, the case was dismissed by the Court of Appeals after ruling that the govern-ment had filed the complaint 11 days late.

“But tough times may be ahead for Tan. In October, the government was compelled to resume the air agreement with Taiwan, on Taipei’s terms, after the Taiwanese government halted the hiring of Filipino workers. A few weeks later, the Estrada government announced it would appeal to the Supreme Court to allow it to file the tax evasion case against the Kapitan.

“Aides close to Tan say that Estrada broke the news about the government’s decision to pursue the tax evasion case to the business tycoon himself. But Tan, they say, seems hardly perturbed. He is said to have told associates that he has survived three presidencies—two of them extremely hostile to him and his businesses—losing a lifeline to Malacañang would not exactly be a new experience.

“Dante Tan hails from the same town as Estrada does: He is a long-time resident of A. Lake St. in San Juan. Tan comes from a wealthy family and came into his inheritance, placed at about P20 million, in the late 1960s when he was barely out of his teens. His buddies included George Go of Equitable Bank.

“Friends say he was a gambler even in his youth and was a frequent habitué at mahjong joints in Ermita.

“Tan became a small-time distributor of auto sup-plies parts, selling the items mostly to auto sup-plies stores on Banawe St., Quezon City. In 1992, with financial backing of friends, he formed Right Track Corp., which became the exclusive distributor of Gajah Tunggal radial tires from Malaysia. In the years to follow, he formed First Megatrack Corp. and Rightrack Insurance Agency Inc.

“Right Track Corp. is now under investigation for using tax credit certificates of textile firms to skirt the payment of customs duties of importation of tires worth $3.5 million.

“Tan is also being investigated for insider trading and manipulating the price of BW Resources to surge by more than 4,000 % to its peak in October 1999. Tan and his partners formed BW Resources Corp. in 1998. The firm won the online bingo franchise from PAGCOR, supposedly upon the intercession of President Estrada, who was later accused by former Securities and Exchange Com-mission (SEC) chief Perfecto Yasay of unduly inter-vening in the investigation of BW.

“Tan loves to tell friends that he was one of the first Chinese Filipinos to have bet on Estrada’s presi-dential bid, and had been delivering funds long before May 1998. He was listed as a contributor to Estrada’s presidential campaign.

“Jacinto Ng Sr. is said to be one of the people closest to Estrada, although he is not a member of the Midnight Cabinet. Just like Lucio Tan, Ng’s friendship with the President dates back to when Estrada was still mayor of San Juan. But unlike the selectively shy Kapitan, Ng was officially listed as one of Estrada’s campaign contributors.

“Ng has interests in Asia United Bank, iVantage Corp., Belle Resources Corp., Republic Biscuit Co., Stateline Snack Food Corp., Nutritive Snack Food Corp., Extraordinary Development Corp., Manila Bay Development Corp., Far East Timberland and Plywood Corp., Suncrest Food Corp., and Ciudad Nuevo, among others.

“But more interesting is the fact that he seems to be so trusted by Estrada that he has connections to at least three of the President’s households. For instance, Ng has stood as ninong at the wedding of Jinggoy Estrada, the President and First Lady’s eldest, and at the baptismal of Jacob Ejercito, the President’s son by Laarni Enriquez.

“Ng is also a business partner of JV Ejercito at Foremost Credit Resources Inc.

“In 1993, Ng bought the property at 771 Harvard St. in Wack-Wack, Mandaluyong, where Enriquez moved into in the mid-1990s. He sold the property in 1998 to Co’s FVC.

“In 1998, Ng’s group bought KB Space Holdings Inc. from the Roxas-Chua family, which held the title to the property at 796-798 Harvard St., also in Wack-Wack. The group then bought the adjoining property at 800 Harvard St. A luxurious mansion, supposedly intended for Enriquez, has since risen on this 5,000-square-meter lot.

“Ng also owns the property in Malabon where the eight-story Star J Mall is located. The mall is managed by Enriquez’s Star-J Management Corp.

“Luis ‘Baby’ Asistio is now a congressman representing the 2nd district of Caloocan City. But he had first gained notoriety in the 1960s when he was the leader of the ‘Big Four Gang,’ a group of young men from Caloocan and Malabon who ended up being charged with various crimes. In their heyday, the Big Four members liked brandishing guns and acting like Mafiosi, and were feared on the night-club strip in what was then Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard.

“Asistio was among those accused in the December 1962 kidnapping-for-ransom of a certain Chua Pao. A co-accused, Benigno Urquico, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, but was granted abso-lute pardon by Estrada in December last year without the recommendation of the Board of Par-dons and Parole. Urquico applied for pardon on Asistio’s advice.

“Asistio belongs to a political clan founded by his father Macario Sr., a well-known athlete and Manila policeman who became mayor of Caloocan from 1951 to 1971. The congressman’s brother Macario ‘Boy’ Jr. was a three-term mayor of the city, while sister Aurora Asistio-Henson represented the 1st district of Caloocan in Congress.

“A party mate of the President and a horse-racing aficionado, Asistio is said have been instrumental in getting many people appointed in government, including a special friend, Mariles Cacho Romulo, who was named to the board of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and Century Bank in Cali-fornia.

“He has also been identified as one of the Presi-dent’s friends who obtained P2 million from the President’s Social Fund for two projects in Caloocan City without prior approval of the board of directors of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. Estrada wrote his approval on the margin of Asistio’s letter, which was coursed through Leonora Vasquez-De Jesus, then chief of the Presidential Management Staff and a close friend of Asistio.

“Members of Asistio’s family have also been busy. Last April, Asistio’s son, Luis ‘Peting’ Asistio III, was charged with drug trafficking and direct assault when he was caught with 106.15 grams of shabu in a drug bust in Caloocan City.

“His brother Macario Asistio, meanwhile, was linked early last year to a syndicate of textbook publishers who tried to corner a P200-million con-tract and sent one of its agents, Mary Ann Maslog, with a P3 million bribe to the Department of Budget and Management. Laarni Enriquez was also linked to the syndicate. She and Asistio’s former live-in partner, singer Djoanna Garcia, are good friends.

“Mark Jimenez, born Mario B. Crespo, is among the President’s more constant goodtime compa-nions. A shadowy businessman who is wanted in the United States for mail fraud, conspiracy, tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions, Jimenez was hailed by Estrada as a ‘corporate genius,’ and even became a presidential adviser on Latin American affairs until the United States government sought his extradition. The Supreme Court recently paved the way for extradition proceedings against him to continue.

“Before he relocated to the United States in the 1980s, Crespo was among the accused in an estafa case filed by Globe-Mackay Cable and Radio Corp. primarily against his brokerage firm, Atrium Air-freight. Apparently, though, Jimenez made good in many of the businesses he set up abroad, before he ran afoul of the law once more. His companies over-seas include Future Tech International, a computer distribution company based in Miami, MarkVision Inc., with headquarters at the British Virgin Islands, and Kalisol, S.A., an Uruguay-based marketing firm.

“Jimenez supported former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa in the 1998 polls but, through businessman Manny Zamora, befriended Estrada when the latter assumed the presidency. Jimenez, a mean karaoke singer, soon moved smoothly into Estrada’s inner circle of friends and brokered the sale of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. to the group of Manuel Pangilinan and PCI Bank to Equitable Bank, from which he supposedly turned a neat profit.

“Jimenez is now the publisher of the Manila Times, the paper that had earned Estrada’s wrath last year for saying he was an ‘unwitting ninong’ to an ‘irre-gular’ deal struck by the National Power Corpora-tion with an Argentinian firm. The Times was then owned by the Gokongwei family, which, months later, was apparently forced to sell the paper to people believed to be fronts for Jimenez, who unsurprisingly denied such an arrangement. Today, he also writes a column for his paper thrice a week.

“Jaime Dichaves, who claims to have known Estrada for at least 10 years, has described himself as one of the President’s ‘errand boys.’ He is also known as the Chief Executive’s red wine buddy (for supplying Estrada with his $1,000-a-bottle Petrus) and advance party at Tagaytay Highlands whenever Estrada goes there (nearly every weekend).

“Along with Ng, the 44-year-old Dichaves is one of the directors of Belle Corp., the publicly listed property and gaming company that owns the members-only Tagaytay Highlands resort where Estrada is said to have at least three vacation houses.

“Dichaves is also a business partner of Laarni Enriquez in Star J Bingo and Star J Games. He is president of the homeowners association at Corin-thian Gardens in Quezon City, where presidential daughter Jackie lives with husband Manuel ‘Beaver’ Lopez in a mansion that the President gifted them during their wedding.

“When he is not attending to the President or members of the extended Estrada family, Dichaves attends to his duties as president of Plasterglass Manufacturing Inc., which makes plasterglass sheets, cornices, moldings and center panels. He is head as well of the Philippine National Basketball Academy and vice president for Luzon of the Basketball Association of the Philippines.

“In September 1999, Dichaves was also dubbed ‘King of Subic’ for allegedly smuggling cigarettes, chicken and other products through the Subic Bay Freeport, purportedly with help from broker Johnny Sy, a partner of Dichaves in Kinetric Realty Inc. and who was ranked second on Malacañang’s list of 14 suspected smugglers. He has denied the allegation.

“But that has not been the only controversy Dichaves has found himself in. Recently, Rep. Ernesto Herrera wrote to the Senate blue ribbon committee, naming Dichaves as Estrada’s ‘tong collector’ at the National Telecommunication Com-mission. The businessman is said to have collected millions of pesos in ‘tong’ for giving his imprimatur to applications of telecommunications and television and radio broadcast companies for provisional authority and additional frequencies.

“Dichaves is also suspected of having engineered the ouster of two other Estrada supporters, Ronaldo Salonga and Benito Araneta, from the sequestered Philippine Communications Satellite Corp. and put-ting his nominee, Pacifico Marcelo III, on the board. Marcelo is consultant of Dialogue Communications, a telecom trading firm owned by Dichaves.

“Jose Luis ‘Sel’ Yulo, a member of one of the country’s wealthiest landowning families, was a Palace perennial during the first two years of the Estrada administration. But it was not until October last year that Yulo caused controversy after the President named him chair of the Presidential Commission on Mass Housing and presidential adviser on housing—without the courtesy of first notifying Housing and Urban Development Coordi-nating Council head Karina David that she was, essentially, being replaced.

“Yulo’s appointment came just two weeks after his newly incorporated firm, St. Peter Holdings Corp., bought a 7,000-square-meter property at 100 11th Street in New Manila, Quezon City, from the Madri-gals on behalf of Estrada. But he would not last even a month in government. He resigned after the Manila Times, which had by then been acquired by Mark Jimenez, reported that he was facing lawsuits for issuing bouncing checks and not paying credit card bills.

“Known as his family’s ‘black sheep,’ Yulo was virtually cut off from his father’s will (he inherited only some of his father’s personal jewelry) and is suing his mother who has been named adminis-trator of the estate. Although he describes himself as a real estate developer, he does not appear to have established any track record in the business.

“What the bearded, avuncular real estate developer became known for within the Estrada circle at least, was his good singing voice. He was a must in Malacañang parties, where he was jokingly referred to as ‘Pavarotti.’”

It was hardly surprising then that Nene Pimentel who, after surviving Martial Law as an outcast would probably not mind being a masochist, did say something about how Erap made it tedious for him to get through the gates of Malacañang when Atong Ang and his kind had easy access to the same hollowed grounds. While Erap tried to brand his administration as one that did not discriminate; he also favored friends who favored him.

Aside from alcohol and mahjong, Erap and his midnight friends appeared to have a common thread in gambling (both legal and illegal), company take-overs (forced or not), and smuggling.

As president, one of Erap’s first acts was an attempt to gain control of Mimosa Regency Casino at the Clark Special Economic Zone, located at what used to be—until 1992—the Clark Air Base of the United States. (The Mimosa, owned by Speedy Gonzalez, the Tourism Secretary during the Ramos admi-nistration, had reportedly closed shop in December 1998 due to rental issues with the Clark Development Corporation [CDC]). It was part of a bigger design to position Clark as the Las Vegas of Asia or something, where patrons would flow in directly via the Clark International Airport.

In a 2000 PCIJ report, author Maritess Vitug wrote:

“In an affidavit, Gonzalez named the presidential cronies who approached him with various offers: fugitive Mark Jimenez, Ang, CDC board member Sunday Pineda, owner of Best World Gaming and Entertainment Corp. Dante Tan, Jaime Dichaves, Bank of Commerce president Raul de Mesa, and presidential adviser Robert Aventajado.

“Two common strands in most of these offers were: the desire for majority ownership of the company; and the mention of President Estrada as co-owner and beneficiary.

  • Jimenez wanted 40 % of MLRC ‘for free, asked for voting rights, and wanted to install his own nominee as chairman of the board.’
  • Ang proposed getting 80 % share of casino revenues to be ‘divided among special interest groups, including the President.’
  • Tan wanted 40 % equity for his company and 40 % for a foreign investor which he would choose. ‘Tan made clear that whatever percentage will go to his group, half of it will go to President Estrada,’ Gonzales states in his affidavit.”

The same PCIJ report described Erap’s eye for a gambling joint at Clark.

“Singson says that Estrada instructed him to set up a casino here, using funds obtained from jueteng collections. ‘Kung hindi natin makuha ang Mimosa, magtayo ng sarili (If we can’t get Mimosa, let’s build our own),’ Estrada reportedly told his friend, the governor. ‘Masyadong magulo ang Mimosa (Mimosa is too messy).’”

The Vitug report continued:

“When that failed, the President ordered his associates to build the Fontainbleau Casino in Clark, said Ilocos Sur Governor Luis ‘Chavit’ Sing-son, a charge corroborated by testimonies in the impeachment trial that show the funneling of jueteng funds into Fontainbleau.

“But when Fontainbleau shut down because of the rivalry among the President’s cronies, preparations were made for the takeover of the Fontana resort complex from Chinese-Filipino businessman Robin Tan and the establishment of a casino there with Estrada’s blessings.

“The same pattern of corporate layering and formation of shell companies that Estrada’s friends used to purchase real estate was evident in the at-tempts to acquire a casino in Clark for the President.

“In fact, the same law firm—the De Borja Medialdea Bello Guevarra & Gerodias law partnership—and the same lawyer, presidential adviser on political affairs Edward Serapio, a former partner of the firm, that formed the shell corporations for President Estrada’s mansions were also those that set up the companies that would take over the Fontana Casino.

“Indeed, the same crony, businessman Lucio Co, whose company owns the house in which presiden-tial mistress Laarni Enriquez currently resides, appears on paper as the main owner of Fontana.

“The rise and fall of Fontainbleau, said to be owned by Estrada, and the emergence of Fontana Casino, in which the President reportedly also has a stake, shows how business deals are brokered on Estrada’s behalf and how rivalries among cronies determine the final configuration of these deals.

“In October 1999, Serapio, then presidential assis-tant for political affairs, asked senior and junior associates in his former law firm to incorporate Alexie Holdings and Pio Holdings, admitted Pablo de Borja, a founding partner of the firm.

“Earlier, in July and August 1999, the law firm had formed six other shelf companies on Serapio’s request. Two of these companies would later be used to purchase real estate for the President. One of them, St. Peter Holdings, was the corporate vehicle used for the acquisition of the now-famous ‘Boracay’ mansion in New Manila, Quezon City. After all, Singson said in his testimony at the impeachment trial last week, Serapio was “in charge of Estrada’s properties.”

“Like the other companies formed by the firm on Serapio’s request, Alexie and Pio Holdings had identical incorporators, all members of the de Borja law office; the same paid up capital of P62,500; and had accounts in the same bank, AsiaTrust.

“Alexie and Pio are the names of children of the law office’s employees. ‘It was easy to register names,’ Dawn Flores-Castro, one of the firm’s partners, said.

“After the companies were formed, the incorpora-tors, who were all members of the firm, signed blank deeds of assignment. De Borja and Flores-Castro said they do not know to whom the shares were assigned. ‘We knew nothing of these companies after they were incorporated,’ de Borja said.

“ ‘The papers just landed on their (associates) desks, given by Michael (Leslie de los Reyes),’ Flores-Castro added. By then, Serapio, who was appointed to Malacañang in April 1999, had taken a leave from the firm although he continued to hold office there. He hired a junior associate, Michael Leslie de los Reyes, as assistant. De los Reyes, who quit the firm in March 2000, handled the paper-work for Serapio, the firm’s partners say.

“At about the same time that Alexie and Pio were formed, another company, Bellagio Holdings, was set up by Lucio Co, a presidential friend who runs the duty-free shops and who has been investigated for smuggling. Four of Bellagio’s incorporators are the same individuals who are listed as incorporators of Co’s Puregold Duty Free (Subic), Inc. All four listed the same address: 900 D. Romualdez St., Paco, Manila.

“In addition, the corporate registration records of Bellagio show five other incorporators with one share each: Lucio Co, his wife Susan, his lawyer Jose Santos, a certain Luis Co Chia Kiat, and Leonardo Dayao, executive vice president of Fontana Resort.

“All these companies are listed in a fact sheet from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) as the owners of RN Development Corpo-ration, the company that owns the Fontana resort and casino. According to the fact sheet, Bellagio Holdings owns 55 % of RN Development; Alexie Holdings, 10 %; and Pio Holdings, 5 %.

“The remaining 30 % is owned by Marlon Holdings Limited, an offshore company registered in Western Samoa in 1996. Western Samoa is classified as a ‘low tax financial shelter.’

“In a memorandum signed by Nathan Inc., the sole director of the company, in June 1999, Marlon Holdings placed its correspondence address as Suite 602, 76 Kennedy Road, Hong Kong. The area is an exclusive apartment complex along a tree-lined residential street. It is not a place of business.

“ ‘Whoever is operating out of Suite 602 is a private resident. It is the best apartment house on Kennedy Road. It is an expensive place to live, with excellent security,’ said a Hong Kong resident contacted for this article. Offshore companies usually maintain addresses in Hong Kong, where an accountant or lawyer operates.

“These complex layers of companies indicate a serious attempt to hide the real ownership of Fontana. In fact, Singson recalls a conversation with Lucio Co wherein the latter told him: ‘Kay Boss din ‘yan (That also belongs to the boss),’ referring to the Clark casino.

“Rufo Colayco, former CDC head, corroborates Singson’s story. ‘Estrada summoned me to the Palace February or March 1999 and introduced me to Chavit. He said that he wished to let the governor have a casino to be operated in the Fontana Resort. He wanted me to help the project along. I took the instruction to mean that the project is important and that it should not be hindered by the bureaucracy,’ Colayco said in an interview.

“Singson said that the President instructed him to ‘use’ his Ateneo classmate, businessman Jesus Pineda, and friend Jaime Dichaves, known supplier of telecommunications equipment, as fronts. Thus, when Fontainbleau Holdings was formed in Feb-ruary 1999, Pineda and Dichaves—representing Estrada—were listed in its corporate records as owning 70 % of the company.

Singson, on the other hand, represented by his daughter Regina S. Lim and friend Romeo Reyes, owned 25 %. Edmundo Silverio, who had the remaining 5 %, was a nominee of PAGCOR president and CEO Reynaldo Tenorio, Singson told the Senate blue ribbon committee.

“Fontainbleau kept an account at Metrobank, Ayala branch. Its signatories were Yolanda Ricaforte, who Singson said was the President’s auditor, and the governor’s daughter, Regina S. Lim. Deposits to the account came from jueteng collections, according to both Singson and his accountant, Carmencita Itchon.

“Fontainbleau entered into a lease agreement with RN Development Corporation, then controlled by Robin Tan—which owns the 300-hectare Fontana Resort that has 300 two-bedroom villas, a conven-tion center, club-house, and ballrooms—to lease the convention center and convert it into a casino.

“Under the lease agreement, Singson paid Tan P30 million down payment for the lease. Renovation of the convention center began in February 1999. Singson spent another P34 million for refurbishing the place and acquiring gambling paraphernalia.

Manuel Singson, a lawyer and the governor’s relative who formed Fontainbleau Holdings, ex-plained the advantage of putting up a separate company to run a casino. ‘Fontainbleau would get a bigger share for Estrada rather than if the casino would be operated by Fontana,’ he said. ‘Under Fontana, Estrada would only get a percentage (of revenues).’ Manuel Singson was Fontainbleau’s corporate secretary.

Enter Atong Ang 

“Although he had already leased part of his resort to Fontainbleau, Tan did not give up his plan to operate his own casino. He and Singson also began to have disagreements. To establish a casino, however, Tan needed connections that would enable him to secure a license from PAGCOR, Colayco and Manuel Singson said in separate interviews.

“Tan found that connection in another presidential friend, Charlie ‘Atong’ Ang, who, at that time, al-ready had a falling out with Chavit Singson. With Ang’s help, RN Development Corporation applied for a casino license.

“The rivalry between Ang and Singson was intense. Colayco recalled that Ang even made him listen to a telephone conversation the latter had with the Ilocos Sur governor. ‘Chavit told Ang that he couldn’t have another casino in Clark. Chavit was adamant. He said only Fontainbleau was going to operate. The boss, Singson said, will decide if we’ll be together in Fontainbleau.’

“Because of this rivalry, two applications for a casino license landed in PAGCOR: one from Fontainbleau and another from RN Development. PAGCOR called both parties to a meeting. Manuel Singson represented Fontainbleau. To qualify for a casino license, the applicant should have more than 100 hotel rooms. Fontainbleau had none and was ho-ping to get access to Tan’s Fontana villas. RN Deve-lopment Corp., which Tan owned, therefore had the upper hand.

“ ‘Estrada instructed the two parties to settle,’ Manuel Singson said. ‘It was justifiable for Fontana to get the license. Chavit told the President about this.’

“Between Tan and Ang, things started to fall apart, too. ‘Atong became too ambitious. He wanted Robin (Tan) out,’ Colayco said. ‘He (Atong) told me that he wanted to own 70 % of Fontana for himself and Erap. He wanted me to kick out Robin Tan.’

“Eventually, because of disagreements, Fontain-bleau folded up in July 1999. RN Development Corporation reimbursed P64 million that Fontain-bleau had advanced: P30 million for advance rental and P34 million for expenses incurred in the purchase of gambling paraphernalia and renova-tion of the convention center.

“But Fontainbleau still entered into an agreement with RN Development that it would get 10 % of net earnings of the Fontana casino once it started operations. However, in February 2000, when Lucio Co and the shelf companies bought RN Develop-ment, Estrada asked his classmate Pineda, the former Fontainbleau president, to sign a ‘deed of mutual waiver and quit claim’ giving up the 10-% share in earnings, said a Fontainbleau official.

“Pineda had already resigned from Fontainbleau at the time so he asked the board to authorize him to sign the quit claim. ‘The President wanted all the earnings to go to the new owners. He decided to take over through Lucio Co,’ Manuel Singson said.

“ ‘If you think about it, President Estrada is facing the worst crisis in his political life because of one man, Atong Ang, and one plot, Bingo-2 Ball,’ says a gambler-friend of Ang’s.”

At the height of the juetengate scandal, amidst mounting pressure for Erap to resign, the President mulled the idea of privatizing PAGCOR.

It attracted sarcasm from Federico Pascual, among other people in media, who, in his October 26, 2000 article published by the Filipino Reporter, said:

“Finally, Erap Estrada came up Saturday with the bright idea of privatizing PAGCOR, the state gambling house whose mass-based Bingo 2-Ball is threatening to bring him down like a deck of cards.

“The President stayed up late with the boys the night before to kick around his grand privatization plan for Bingo 2-Ball, Erap’s dressed-up version of the illegal numbers game of jueteng….

“In privatizing Bingo 2-Ball, Erap appears more obsessed with solving his problem of negative public perception, and not really the more basic problem of lifting a people mired in poverty….

“But while privatization can erase the jueteng payo-la scandal blown up by Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Singson, it does not offer a solution to the problem of govern-ment allowing gambling to sap the productivity of the masses.

“…. There’s suspicion that privatization is more of a money making scheme than a sincere attempt to solve the myriad problems posed by state-spon-sored gambling victimizing the masses who have been reduced to dasal and sugal to lift themselves from poverty….

“Privatization may just be a case of shooting two birds with one stone: Getting rid of a virulent prob-lem and making money in the process.

“‘Wala na bang expertise ang Estrada Adminis-tration kundi sugal?’ (Does the Estrada Adminis-tration have any other expertise except gam-bling?)”

And with gambling (both legal and illegal) came its cousins in the underworld, smug-gling among them. Another PCIJ report, written by Glenda Gloria, quotes intelligence officials who said:

“Several of this new breed of gambling enterpre-neurs are linked with organized smuggling activi-ties… You must remember that legal and illegal gambling is the heartland of organized crime. That’s what the experience of other countries has shown. That’s what we fear is happening now in the country.”

“Once when I was with Erap and Lucio Co,” Chavit recalled the times when friendship offered the luxury of light and candid talk, “Erap asked me how it feels to be beside a smuggler.”

In that 2009 speech (titled “Dalawang Mukha ng Sining,” (or “Two Faces of Art” in English) which I mentioned a couple of times earlier, Senator Ping Lacson had a mouthful on smuggling that concerned Erap and his select friends. Ping said:

“When Mr. Estrada transferred the mission of going after smugglers from the late Lt Gen. Jose Calimlim’s unit in PSG to the PAOCTF, he gave me the mandate to go hammer and tongs against smugglers.

“Yet one morning, I received a call from Mr. Estrada. ‘May mga tao ka raw na nangha-harass sa Customs,’ (I have been informed that your men are harassing Customs personnel) he said with a low tone.

“After checking with my officers, I replied, ‘Wala sila sir sa loob ng Customs zone kaya imposibleng makapang-harass sila doon. Nandun sila sa labas, malapit sa Manila Hotel at may inaabangan na ilulusot na shipments ng dressed chicken parts from China and the US (They are not inside Customs, Sir, it is not possible for them to harass anyone there, they are outside near Manila Hotel on the look out for smuggled chicken parts from China and the US).’

“He bellowed, ‘Basta i-pull out mo! (Just pull your men out!)’

“A few days later in a light conversation on the topic of smuggling, inside his office in Malacañang, I told Mr. Estrada, ‘Alam mo sir, dalawampung 40-foot containers sana ng dressed chickens ang nahuli natin kung hindi mo iniutos i-pull out ang mga tao natin (You know, Sir, 20 40-foot containers of dressed chicken could have been apprehended had you not instructed me to pull out our operatives).’

With a mocking voice, he said, ‘Sana hindi kayo nag-pull out (You should have not pulled them out).’

Akala ko, nang bigyan ako ng kautusang lipulin ang mga smugglers sa pier, totoong-totoo at seryoso. Ako namang si gago, trabaho lang ng trabaho. ‘Yun pala, moro-moro (I thought my order to go after smugglers was true and serious. And here I am, a fool, doing his job. It turns out everything is a sham).”

Chapter 6

Chavit’s Rubicon

Atong Ang called Erap “Tatang” (Father), whenever Erap was not within hearing distance. Atong was like a spoiled brat, said Chavit.

Once, while arguing with Erap, Atong just turned his back and left. “Tingnan mo ang gagong ‘to,” Chavit quoted Erap’s comment on the walkout.

Atong and Erap were entangled in a relationship not unlike that of lovers—they quarreled, they reconciled, and they quarreled again. They were bound by a common interest but wary of distrust between each other. That interest was gambling—and the money they made from it.

Erap was the link that brought Atong to Chavit, and vice versa. One could assume that Erap would have wished his friends to be in the best of terms—the better for everyone to work towards achieving their objective. But where Chavit and Atong were concerned, there was more dislike than goodwill for each other.

The first public clash between Chavit and Atong happened in mid-1999 at Clark where Erap allegedly went after the take-over of Mimosa, then tried to set up FountainBleau /FontainBleu, through his midnight friends, including Chavit and Atong. The two had competing stakes in setting up a casino at Clark. At this time the signs of distrust between Erap and Chavit were also emerging.

A portion of the Sandiganbayan decision discussed about what happened in August of 1999: “FPres. Estrada called Gov. Singson, Ricaforte and Serapio to a meeting at Mandaluyong.  Gov. Singson was instructed by FPres. Estrada in the presence of Ricaforte and Serapio to turn-over all the balance of the money from jueteng to the account of Ricaforte. Gov. Singson was keeping most of the above-mentioned P123 Million in the bank and the others in cash in his office because FPres. Estrada would ask for money from time to time.  Gov. Singson turned-over the afore-mentioned balance of the jueteng money partly in check and partly in cash in the office of FPres. Estrada. Ricaforte and Serapio were there with the Former President.”

Then Atong and Chavit clashed again some-time in September 2000 over the Bingo 2 Balls. Erap has maintained that the PAGCOR-regulated Bingo 2 Ball was introduced to eradicate jueteng and generate more revenues for the government. Chavit said Bingo 2 Balls would generate more revenues for the private pocket of Erap. Ping, speaking as Senator, charged that Erap devised a way to legalize jueteng through Bingo 2 Balls because the anti-jueteng campaign he waged as PNP Chief (November 1999 to January 2001), against Erap’s will, was hurting the illegal numbers game.

Ang was supposed to manage Bingo 2 Balls for PAGCOR and get paid with an amount equivalent to 23 % of total gross sales, according to the Gloria report mentioned earlier. During Bingo 2 Balls’ 12-day dry run in September 2000, PAGCOR reportedly generated P43 M in revenues. This meant Atong earned P9.89 M from 20 days of operation.[1]

PAGCOR did not find it hard to award the Bingo 2 Balls management contract to Atong because PAGCOR believed that he has already proven his reliability as jai-alai operator, for which he earned half a million pesos every day, again according to reports.

And Atong raked it in because Erap was part of all the action. “Yung jai alai, kay presi-dente din yon (Jai-alai belongs to the Presi-dent),” the Gloria report quoted Chavit as having said in an interview. “Hindi naman mabubuksan yon kung wala siya doon eh (It would never have been reopened without his backing).”

Serious cracks in Erap-Atong-Chavit trium-virate manifested themselves sometime in July 2000. Testifying at the Erap plunder trial, Congressman Luis “Baby” Asistio said that Chavit confided to him his (Chavit) problems with Erap. The latter, according to Baby, was avoiding Chavit at a time when Chavit needed help with the government auditors who, by that time, had been persistent in demanding the liquidation of the P130 million that he advanced as Erap’s cut from the tobacco excise tax released earlier as share of the province of Ilocos Sur.

Baby also said that Erap did not want to help Chavit because “[Erap] might get into trouble as the Chairman of the Commission on Audit is a constitutional appointee and suggested that Gov. Singson instead talk to then Executive Sectary Ronaldo Zamora to resolve his problem.”

Baby did not say it was alright for the president to tolerate irregularities for as long as Erap was out of the picture, although Erap’s words as Baby cited them would suggest such a speculation.

Although the full amount of P130 M was meant for Erap, Chavit said Atong did not deliver to Erap the full amount. When Chavit asked Erap how much Atong gave him, Erap said: “P70 million.” When Chavit asked Atong about the remaining P60 million, Atong said he gave Loi P20 and Jinggoy P15. Atong could not account for the remaining P25 million.[2]

At the Sandiganbayan where Atong was charged as Erap’s accomplice, he later on pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, and paid the government P25 M as part of the bargain.

That Erap felt pre-empted in the way the loot was distributed among his family members could have ignited the playful mien in him. What better way to get even than leaving Chavit to fend for himself in a future tussle with the auditors?

As collector of jueteng protection money intended for Erap, Chavit said that some-time in January 1999, Erap knew that 1 mil-lion pesos was being given to Jinggoy, and Erap did not like it. “I will be the one giving Jinggoy his share,” Chavit reportedly quoted Erap as saying.

Chavit and Jinggoy tricked Erap by putting Jinggoy in charge of collecting jueteng protection money for the whole province of Bulacan, thus allowing Jinggoy to remit to Chavit his collections net of his share, Sandiganbayan records showed.

Ping Lacson exposed the Erap versus Jinggoy sub-plot in that 2009 Senate speech mentioned earlier. That part of the speech reads:

“Before I tackle the Dacer-Corbito double murder case, please allow me to tell you some short stories about a son, a brother and an elected senator of the Republic.

“The following are excerpts from a telephone con-versation that transpired between two male persons, both in the United States at that time, one in Los Angeles, California, the other, in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the persons on the line was about to be extradited to testify in a plunder case then pending trial at the Sandiganbayan involving a long-time friend and former president of his country.

“The original charge sheet included the father, the mother and a son. Hence:

“(Conversation between two male persons on or about summertime of 2006 in America)

“Voice #1 [Jinggoy]: Pare, ano ba plano mo pag-uwi mo (Buddy, what are your plans when you get back home)?

“Voice # 2 [Atong Ang]: Pare, ‘di ko alam eh (Buddy, I don’t know).

“Voice #1: Pare, kung uuwi ka… kung ano man ang plano mo, huwag mo na kaming idamay ni mommy; si daddy na lang…. kaya niya namang i-depensa ang sarili niya… May ambisyon pa ako. Magpre-presidente pa ako… ako ang bahala sa ‘yo (Buddy, if you’re going home… whatever your plans are, spill the beans on daddy but spare me and my mommy … he can very well defend himself… I still have ambitions in life. I will become President one day … I’ll look after you).

“Voice #2: Bahala na. Di ko alam pag-uwi ko (Whichever. I don’t know what will happen when I go home)….”

“Of course we now know that the father was convicted, while the mother and son were acquitted.

“The man in Las Vegas could not believe what the man in Los Angeles told him. But the fact that the source of this phone conversation is not only reliable but unimpeachable, I myself could not believe this story.

“The next story is about two brothers, both presidential sons at that time, and a jueteng operator in Baguio City. The elder brother, after being informed that a younger brother was receiving a monthly jueteng payola of P1M, called the attention of the jueteng operator and told him, thus:

“ ‘Yung P1M na ibinibigay mo sa kapatid ko, hatiin mo… sa akin mo ibigay ang kalahati… Baka gamitin lang pambili ng drugs yung pera (That P1M that you are giving to my brother, split it… give one half to me … the money might just end up being used to buy drugs).’

“Aside from that additional P500,000 sequestered from the younger brother, the elder brother had a regular monthly payola of P800,000 from another jueteng operator from Bulacan, P1M from Chavit Singson and unspecified amount from yet another gambling lord from Pampanga.

“The third story involves an incumbent Cabinet secretary and an elected senator of the Republic. Hence:

Sec, natalo ako ng P10M. Bigyan mo ako ng project bukas (Secretary, I just lost P10 million. Give me a project tomorrow).”

Jinggoy likewise stood up to deliver a speech, saying Ping was hitting the Estradas because Ping was being implicated in the Dacer-Corbito double murder case.

But what really broke the ties between Atong and Erap on the one hand, and Chavit on the other, was the manner by which Atong had proceeded to operate Bingo 2 Balls in Ilocos Sur. Atong skipped Chavit and struck deals with the Governor’s political opponents.

Chavit flared up. He was being shamed before his political supporters, particularly among the mayors of Ilocos Sur. He and Erap and Atong often met together when Bingo 2 Balls was being hatched, so he knew Erap was behind Atong’s transgression and its manifest intent to clip his political wings, as it were.

On September 7, 2000, after having informed Chavit that Erap wanted to “rush the start of ‘Bingo 2 Balls,’ Atong informed the Singsons that “the other half of the franchise was given to” another Singson, Eric, who was Chavit’s political opponent.

Another portion of the Sandiganbayan deci-sion reads:

“According to the son of Gov. Singson, Atong Ang told him that he had the provincial commander transferred and the Chief of Police replaced. His father could not do anything to stop “Bingo 2 Balls” as it was decided by FPres. Estrada and his political career was finished.  Gov. Singson talked with Atong Ang when he was in Malaysia and told him that they should wait for FPres. Estrada to return.  FPres. Estrada returned from the United States on September 13, 2000.  Gov. Singson also arrived from Malaysia the following day. The follo-wing day, Gov. Singson asked FPres. Estrada over the phone why the franchise was given to his poli-tical enemy.  Gov. Singson told him that all the ma-yors will be embarrassed. FPres. Estrada replied that he had nothing to do with it. Gov. Singson thought that FPres. Estrada was fooling him.  He told FPres. Estrada that it was a matter of pride, that all his mayors were getting embarrassed. FPres. Estrada replied that he did not care, so Gov. Sing-son told him ‘Kung dahil lang dyan pagkatapos ng lahat bibitawan mo ako, bibitaw na rin ako sa iyo (If only for that—after everything that we have gone through—you will drop me, then I will drop you also).’

“Gov. Singson then asked his lawyers to prepare his affidavit because he knew that his life would be in danger if he would part ways with FPres. Estrada, who was very powerful and Gov. Singson had no evidence.  Gov. Singson then called Ricaforte and asked her to fax to him the ledger.  Ricaforte asked if they were going to Malacañang.  Gov. Singson knew that Ricaforte did not know yet what was happening.  After she faxed the ledger from her house to Gov. Singson, the latter asked his lawyer to continue with the preparation of his affidavit. Gov. Singson said he prepared the affidavit so that if anything happened to him it would be known who was responsible.  When asked if he was threatened, Gov. Singson replied that he knew FPres. Estrada and the men around him so he knew that his life was in danger.

“The first set of ledgers was faxed to Singson, while the second set was in the possession of Ricaforte which she produced during the impeachment proceedings.  The prosecution would have the latter subpoenaed from the Senate. Everyone that Gov. Singson consulted gave the same comment. Nobody will believe Gov. Singson because FPres. Estrada was the most popular President elected. Gov. Singson talked with Jinggoy Estrada. Gov. Singson told Jinggoy Estrada that his family got P130 M from him and that Jinggoy Estrada got part of the said money.  Gov. Singson also told Jinggoy Estrada that jueteng money all went to his father and that Jinggoy Estrada also had a part of it. Jinggoy Estrada told Gov. Singson, they would fix it.

“Nothing happened so Gov. Singson talked with JV Ejercito, another son of FPres. Estrada. JV Ejercito asked Gov. Singson not to come out and that he will talk with his father. Again nothing happened so Gov. Singson approached Secretary Ronnie Zamora and showed him the ledger. The latter reacted that the ledger was a serious matter, ‘Delikado ito (This is dangerous).’ Zamora asked Gov. Singson not to come out and he told Gov. Singson that he would see FPres. Estrada.  Gov. Singson then went to see Former Secretary Edgardo Angara at the latter’s GMA Farm in Batangas and showed to him the ledger.  Secretary Angara asked Gov. Singson not to come out publicly because the ledger was a serious matter and even they, the cabinet members may be affected. After that first meeting in Batangas, Chavit Singson saw Secretary Angara at the Philippine Plaza and he latter told Gov. Singson that it was alright as he was able to talk to FPres. Estrada. Secretary Angara, according to Gov. Singson, told FPres. Estrada that Gov. Singson was a big help to them in politics and that he was just asking for a small favor. Secretary Angara also asked FPres. Estrada not to embarrass Gov. Singson’s mayors. This matter might be known by the media. Secretary Angara informed Gov. Singson that FPres. Estrada got mad and replied ‘Sinong tinakot nya (Who is he trying to scare)?’ Before Secretary Angara left, he told FPres. Estrada that he saw Gov. Singson’s jueteng ledger and he found it a ground for impeachment. FPres. Estrada appeared surprised (‘Nagulat’) but did not say anything. Sec. Angara assured FPres. Estrada, he will first talk with Gov. Singson and fix it. For the third time, Gov. Singson saw Secretary Angara at New World Hotel. He asked Gov. Singson to give him until the end of September 2000 because the FPres. was a ‘macho’ and would not easily give in. However, Gov. Singson replied that he was already decided because his mayors kept on calling him. Incidentally according to Gov. Singson, these political enemies were operating the ‘Bingo 2 Balls.’

“After Secretary Angara, Gov. Singson also approached Congressman Mark Jimenez, who said after he met with FPres. Estrada, General Lacson and Secretary Ronnie Zamora that ‘Bingo 2 Balls’ will not stop in Ilocos Sur but that Gov. Singson should lie-low first. Gov. Singson replied that he had decided already to come out and he informed his mayors that he will expose the anomalies involving FPres. Estrada.  Gov. Singson talked with Jimenez over the phone when he was then at Holiday Inn on October 3, 2000.  There was a conference of the Mayors League in the Philippines. Gov. Singson left Holiday Inn together with twenty-two mayors.  According to Gov. Singson, armed men followed him at about 11:30 that evening at San Marcelino Street, Manila, and that his vehicle was blocked by three cars and one motorcycle, all passengers by which were fully armed by armalite. Two of the cars were TMG cars and the other, a civilian red car. Gov. Singson told the mayor with whom he was talking over the phone that they should all go to San Marcelino, behind Jai-Alai because of an emergency.  His driver was instructed by Gov. Singson not to open the door of his vehicle.

“PAOC men signaled Gov. Singson to get out of his vehicle, a bullet-proof Ford Super Van but he refused. He went out of the van after the mayors arrived one after another.  The PAOC team told Gov. Singson that they received information that he had a blinker that, although he did not use it, mere possession was already a violation and that they wanted to bring this to Crame and after he suggested that he be given a ticket for the violation but he instead asked that they go to the police precincts at the United Nations Avenue. Only the two TMG Officers went to the police precinct with Gov. Singson who rode in his own van.  There were media people at the police precinct.  When asked why he was being harassed although he was influential to the FPres. Estrada, Gov. Singson replied to the media that he will expose the anomalies of FPres. Estrada.

“The following day the incident was published in the newspapers and shown on television. The group of FPres. Estrada tried to settle with Singson. JV Ejercito was the first to call repeatedly (every two minutes) to ask Gov. Singson to return the call of FPres. Estrada, Gov. Singson called the latter who asked that they talk because he was confused with the problems of the Abu Sayyaf and the First Lady. Gov. Singson replied he had already given his word.”

Chavit had crossed his Rubicon.

The Sandiganbayan  decision goes on:

“They talked for the second time and then third time, it was FPres. Estrada himself who called. The next person to call was Atong Ang who was pleading to Gov. Singson to fix the matter. Gov. Singson brought up the P130 Million from the excise tax which Gov. Singson said was taken by Atong Ang and FPres. Estrada.  Atong Ang promised that the said amount will be returned to Gov. Singson and that the ‘Bingo 2 Balls’ will be given to Gov. Singson.  Gov. Singson informed him that it was too late.”

As far as Chavit was concerned, the die was cast, to borrow the words of Julius Ceasar. More from Sandiganbayan:

“Atong Ang called Gov. Singson about twenty (20) times After Atong Ang, Former Secretary Alfredo Lim called to convince Gov. Singson to settle and to see FPres. Estrada. Alfredo Lim asked Gov. Singson to proceed with the press conference but he should put the blame on Atong Ang and that they will take care of Atong Ang. Alfredo Lim gestured with his right fist thumb down. Gov. Singson understood this to mean that Atong Ang will be killed.[3] Gov. Singson did not agree because he might be implicated.  He asked them to look for a good reason.

“The next to call Gov. Singson was Jinggoy Estrada. The latter and Gov. Singson talked on October 8, 2000.  Jinggoy Estrada also sent many emissaries to talk with Gov. Singson. That evening Gov. Singson went to Cardinal Sin at his San Miguel Residence. Gov. Singson explained to Cardinal Sin the situation and left to him the evidences so that in case anything happens to Gov. Singson, he would know who will be responsible. Gov. Singson saw the Cardinal with his sisters. Cardinal Sin told Gov. Singson to go ahead that he will pray for Gov. Singson and that God will be with them.

“Gov. Singson returned to his house at 10:00 o’clock in the evening where Jinggoy Estrada called him and sent emissaries again to Gov. Singson. At 12:00 midnight Jinggoy Estrada and some friends of his arrived at Gov. Singson’s house in Blue Ridge, Quezon City.[4] Jinggoy Estrada pleaded to Gov. Singson until 3:00 o’clock the following morning.  Gov. Singson told Jinggoy Estrada that it was too late because his press conference will happen in a while and all that the Estradas could do was to deny what Gov. Singson will reveal at the press conference. He further said to Jinggoy Estrada that he will not mention the latter’s name.

“Gov. Singson proceeded with his press conference on October 9, 2000 at Club Filipino. He gave the two reasons: first, FPres. Estrada insulted him and wanted him killed so he was not a true friend anymore; and second, he already had the evidence and they will kill him even if he did not pursue his planned press conference. It was better for him to be killed with honor and to show how corrupt the government was under the Estrada Administration. According to Gov. Singson, FPres. Estrada wanted to replace jueteng with ‘Bingo-2-Balls’ because he will earn more, about Fifty Million Pesos a day. Gov. Singson explained how much FPres. Estrada would receive from ‘Bingo 2 Balls.’ “

Alfredo “Fred” Lim said Chavit told him “that Atong Ang and Ping Lacson were the per-sons responsible for the attempted ambush on his life, and that both conspired to have him killed because Gov. Singson was against the Bingo 2 Balls gaming proposal of Atong Ang and that there was an arrangement for the raising of campaign funds for the presidential candidacy of Ping Lacson.”

Fred, Sandiganbayan records say, “further related that Gov. Singson also implicated FPres. Estrada on the alleged attempted ambush on his life on the theory that Atong Ang and Ping Lacson will not have the courage to have him killed without the approval of FPres. Estrada.”

A decade after it happened, Chavit looked back and said: “It was survival on my part. They were going to kill me regardless of whether I talk or not. I was going the way of Dacer. So I decided I might as well talk. At least people will know what happened.”

[1] Alice Reyes, Chair of PAGCOR at the time, testified at Erap’s plunder trial that PAGCOR generated 23 million pesos for 12 days in September 2000. Atong’s share from the revenues constituted 8 %, later reduced to 7, then 5, and finally to 2 % in November 2000, during which time the House of Representatives had impeached Erap.

[2] According to Chavit, Jinggoy and Atong were the ones who followed up with the DBM after Erap endorsed the request for release of RA 7171.

[3] Fred Lim disputed this. He explained, when he took the witness stand as defense witness at the Sandiganbayan Erap plunder case trial that what he meant was that FPres. Estrada would have Atong Ang ordered investigated and not to have the latter killed.

[4] At the witness stand, Jinggoy denied having visited Chavit on October 8-9, 2000. He said he was at the Sydney Olympics during that time. The Sydney Olympics started on September 15, 2000 and ended October 1, 2000.

Part One: Chavit’s Story | Part Two: Eye of a Political Firestorm | Part Three: The Impeachment

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