JOSEPH ‘Erap’ Estrada has always been an interesting character, but once he was voted into the vice presidency, he became a source of fascination for us at the PCIJ. After all, he was not just the vice president; President Fidel Ramos had also named him as head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC), where his sidekick was then Chief Supt. Panfilo Lacson. One of our earliest stories on him, in fact, was on how he and the PACC had turned from “white knights of deliverance” into “black knaves” who were leaving “a trail of bungled cases and bloody corpses” (among them those of the Kuratong Baleleng gang members).
Then Estrada became president, which made him even more fascinating to us. We chronicled his unorthodox lifestyle, his keen appreciation of the perks of public office, and his “Midnight Cabinet” in a series of articles in our then quarterly magazine, i. We also wrote extensively on several of his cronies, among them Lucio Tan, Mark Jimenez, and William Gatchalian. And we had investigative reports on his unexplained wealth, including his family’s businesses and growing number of lavish properties.
By December 2000, we had enough stories on the Estrada presidency to compile in the book Investigating Estrada. This was also around the time that the impeachment trial of Estrada began at the Senate. Yet even his archenemies probably did not foresee that in just two months, the former action star would be out of Malacañang and, a few more months later, would be in a detention cell with one of his sons.
Six years on, the verdict in the first criminal trial involving a former president of the Philippine Republic is about to be handed down. As we all wait, we invite you to revisit the Estrada presidency through a selection of stories from our book on investigating our country’s then chief executive.
We start with an updated excerpt of the book’s introduction, which was written by then PCIJ Executive Director Sheila S. Coronel:
Investigating the President
The PCIJ began its research on then President Joseph Estrada’s wealth in the first quarter of 2000. By then, coffee shops were already buzzing with talk of fancy mansions being built for presidential mistresses and of Estrada taking cuts from various business deals. While there were blind items in the newspaper columns about these rumors, there were no serious attempts to investigate their veracity.
The president was then immensely popular and enjoying something of an uneasy honeymoon with the media. Smarting from critical reporting, Estrada had hit back at the press in the second half of 1999, by forcing the sale of the feisty Manila Times to his friend Mark Jimenez and then instigating an advertising boycott of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. For the most part, pliant press proprietors toed the Palace line, as did broadcast media owners who were intimidated by a thin-skinned president who appeared to have no qualms about striking back at the media where it hurt: their pockets.
When we started investigating Estrada’s properties, we were not even certain whether the results of our research would be circulated through mainstream media outlets. The PCIJ is an independent, nonprofit news organization that is funded by grants and income from the sale of its articles and publications. At the time we published a quarterly magazine. And even then we had a website, but we relied mainly on newspapers and television networks to disseminate our work.
The crucial thing, it seemed to us, was to begin the research and then worry about its publication afterward. When a team composed of PCIJ staff journalists and contributors met in January 2000, we had only a sketchy idea of the dimensions of the president’s wealth. Even as the book went to press in December 2000, we were convinced that we had only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. While we had documented the purchases of the property and the formation of corporations, we had yet to report on where the money to fund these acquisitions came from. A definitive probe on Estrada’s accumulations in his first two-and-a-half years in office had yet to be undertaken.
The paper trail
The direction of our research was determined by what could be documented. Thus, one track of our investigation focused on the acquisition of real estate and the construction of houses. The second track focused on the formation of corporations by members of Estrada’s various families. All these transactions, after all, require voluminous documentation and the filing of papers with various government agencies.
We are fortunate that in the Philippines, unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, access to many categories of public records is fairly routine. These include registrations and financial records, building, and various permits, and statements of assets of public officials. These documents formed the backbone of our research and the basis for checking information provided by human sources.
But while access to these records was routine, it was also often made needlessly difficult by the foot-dragging of bureaucrats and the tedious procedures required to obtain documents. To get corporate registration records at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for example, our researchers had to queue at the SEC office as early as seven a.m.; the documents would be released only five or six hours later. Moreover, each researcher was allowed to access only three corporate records a day.
This became particularly time-consuming as our search using SEC computers yielded 66 corporations in which President Estrada, his wives, and various children were listed as incorporators, board members, or substantial shareholders. It took us more than two months of lining up at the SEC office to obtain the records of these corporations. These documents became the basis of the report released by the PCIJ in July 2000, “Can Estrada Explain His Wealth?”, which lists various Estrada holdings and shows the disparities between what the president declared in his statements of assets and income tax returns and what SEC records indicated as the rather substantial assets of his various families.
A different kind of house-hunting
Even while we were doing corporate searches, we were also following the trail of the houses. The most visible of these was the mansion being built on a half-a-hectare property in exclusive Wack Wack, Mandaluyong, supposedly for presidential mistress Laarni Enriquez. A search of land records at the Mandaluyong registry of deeds yielded the name of KB Space Holdings, the company that owned the property. A subsequent search at the SEC showed that the firm was owned by Jacinto Ng, one of the president’s closest and oldest friends.
The story would have stopped there, as there appeared to be no proof that either Estrada or Enriquez had purchased the property.
But then interviews with residents and officials of Wack Wack would reveal that the president and his mistress were often seen in the area, on occasion inspecting the mansion being built there. Moreover, there was talk of Estrada buying up more properties in the village and elsewhere, including New Manila, Quezon City, where the out-of-this-world “Boracay” mansion, with its white sand, wave machine, and heated swimming pool, was constructed in late 1999.
The first challenge was to identify where these properties were located (many individuals were helpful in this regard, as were anonymous tips sent to us by email). Then we had to find the corresponding land and corporate records to establish ownership. From the beginning, it was clear to us that proving the real ownership of these properties would be problematic. But we also knew that the investigation would not reach a dead end if we were able to show a pattern in their acquisition. As we gathered documentary evidence and spoke with contractors, designers and suppliers familiar with the construction of various mansions as well as residents in the areas where the properties were acquired, a pattern soon became discernible.
Altogether, we found 17 pieces of real estate in Metro Manila, Tagaytay, and Baguio acquired by the president and his various family members since 1998. These properties, by our estimates, total P2 billion. We discovered that most of them were in the name of shell corporations formed by close associates of the president. These included Dante Tan, a major contributor to the Estrada campaign who was later charged with the insider trading and price manipulation; Lucio Co, the owner of duty free shops who has been investigated for smuggling; Jaime Dichaves, a long-time presidential crony who has been accused of intervening in the telecommunications industry; Mark Jimenez, former presidential assistant for Latin American affairs who would later be extradited to the United States and sentenced to jail there; and Ramon Ang, the vice chairman of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), who acted as the political broker for SMC chairman and Estrada supporter Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.
An extended people trail
We uncovered the key role played by lawyer Edward Serapio and of the De Borja Medialdea Bello Guevarra and Gerodias law firm in the incorporation of the shell companies that fronted for the sale of the properties. We also documented the apparent complicity of the law firm and the Bank of Commerce in the acquisition of a Forbes Park property for presidential daughter Jacqueline Ejercito and her husband Manuel Lopez.
Moreover, we found a pattern in the use of contractors and project managers for the construction. For example, Centech International, one of the purchasing companies affiliated with SMC, was the project manager for the Wack Wack mansion being built for Enriquez and the Forbes Park, Makati mansion being constructed for Guia Gomez, known as presidential wife no. 2. In addition, Kanlaon Construction, a company owned by presidential classmate Antonio Evangelista, was involved in building several of the mansions.
By examining building plans and photographs, we found that houses were in a uniformly opulent style and were designed by some of the country’s top architectural and design firms. Enriquez’s Wack Wack mansion, with its beauty parlor, theater, sauna, and a living room the size of a hotel lobby, showed the heights of excess to which the construction binge can lead.
Our investigation on the Estrada mansions took months; it started with the most talked about constructions to the lesser-known ones in Tagaytay, Baguio and elsewhere. We were fortunate that by the time we were ready to publish our first mansion story, then Ilocos Sur Governor Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson dropped his bombshell about the president receiving payoffs from illegal gambling. By then, the media environment had changed and had become more receptive to investigative reporting on Estrada. The public, too, was hungry for information about the goings on in Malacañang Palace, in part because all these were, for the most part, hidden from public view till then.
By October 2000, our investigation had a ready and receptive market, even on television, which had previously been wary about reporting critically about the president. More and more individuals were also offering information to us, thus facilitating the publication of more reports. We received tips through email, text messages, phone calls and letters. Some informants even sent us photographs of houses; others provided exact addresses that made the paper chase so much easier.
In the end, three of our reports were cited in the impeachment complaint filed by the House of the Representatives against the president. But as we now all know, that was only the beginning.
(Click here to order a copy of Investigaing Estrada: Millions, Mansions and Mistresses.)