Political rivals, same secret
SENATOR MANUEL ‘Manny’ B. Villar Jr. and Congressman Joseph Victor ‘JV’ G. Ejercito are from rival political coalitions. Villar played a lead role in the impeachment and eventual ouster from the presidency of Ejercito’s father Joseph Estrada.
In the May 2013 elections, Villar’s wife Cynthia is running for senator with President Benigno Aquino III’s Team PNoy while Ejercito is part of the senatorial slate of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) led by Vice President Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay.
But in one important respect, Villar, 63, and Ejercito, 43, are pretty much alike. Both businessmen-politicians own secret offshore corporations in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a privacy and tax haven where a global elite of wealthy people like to keep their money away from the prying eyes of the authorities.
Villar is the beneficial owner of a BVI international business corporation called Awesome Dragon Holdings Limited. It was incorporated in the BVI on July 26, 2007 while he was president of the Senate. Villar served as Senate president from July 2006 to November 2008.
Ejercito is a director of a BVI company called Ice Bell Properties Limited formed on July 8, 1999, when his father was still president. In 2001, Ejercito became mayor of San Juan City, and in 2007, a freshman congressman form his father’s political bailiwick.
Check out full text and related documents, Part 2 of the PCIJ report, “Offshore and Politicians in the Philippines” here:
Sidebar: Repentant, reticent, rude
In their separate written replies to the PCIJ, Villar and Ejercito differed yet again, however.
Villar admitted to being the “ultimate shareholder” of Awesome Dragon Holdings Limited but said it was a dormant company with a capital of just one US dollar. He said it was put in place in 2007 “as a ready corporate vehicle for any strategic multinational business opportunity that may become available.”
PCIJ checked with the BVI authorities and learned that contrary to Villar’s statement, Awesome Dragon Holdings remains active as of April 2, 2013.
Ejercito did not confirm or deny his directorship in Ice Bell Properties Limited. Instead, he raised questions about the timing of this story, which, he said, “is highly suspicious considering the on-going electoral campaign of which I am one of the leading contenders among the UNA senatorial candidates.”
Ejercito wrote: “I have held high respect to (sic) the PCIJ as an institution. I hope that you will not allow yourself to fall in (sic) the manipulative efforts of desperate people in (sic) dirty politics.”
Both Villar and Ejercito did not report their links with their respective offshore companies in their annual Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs), copies of which were gathered by PCIJ.
The PCIJ secured copies of Villar’s SALNs from 1992, when he was first elected member of Congress, to 2011, the latest available, as well as Ejercito’s SALNs from 2001, when he began his political career as San Juan City mayor, to 2009, the year for which the latest copy is available.
As public officials, Villar and Ejercito are required by law to list all their assets, liabilities, business interests, and financial connections, including those located in other countries, in their annual SALN.
In his reply, Villar said Awesome Dragon Holdings Limited does not appear in his SALN because it is owned by Fine Properties Inc., which he has already enrolled in his SALN. “I do not own it – it is owned by Fine Properties Inc.,” he said.
Fine Properties does not appear as shareholder or officer of Awesome Dragon Hioldings, however.
Records maintained by Portcullis Trust Net Limited, the offshore servicing company that was instrumental in incorporating Awesome Dragon Holdings Limited in the BVI, listed Villar as “beneficial owner” in the data sheet of the offshore corporation.
His ties to the offshore company are also apparent from the due diligence documents submitted by UBS AG (Hong Kong) to Portcullis Trust Net. In a September 5, 2007 letter to Portcullis with the subject heading “Re: Manuel Bamba Villar (‘the Client’),” UBS AG (Hong Kong) certified that Villar was a client of good standing of the bank since 1999 and confirmed his residential address.
Attached to the letter was a certified true copy of an image of the main page of Villar’s passport with a handwritten note stating “Re: BVI Co – Awesome Dragon Holdings Limited.” It was signed by Linda Chew, UBS AG (Hong Kong) executive director at that time.
Ejercito’s net worth has grown steadily through the years – from P53.3 million in 2001, when he was only 32 years old, to a high of P64 million in 2009
While he disclosed a fairly detailed list of his business interests and financial connections in over two dozens of family-owned and publicly listed companies, he did not include Ice Bell Properties Limited.
In his reply to PCIJ, Ejercito did not squarely address the question why Ice Bell Properties Limited is not mentioned in his SALN. He merely said: “To the best of my knowledge, I have truthfully and accurately declared all my assets, liabilities, and net worth in my Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN) since 2001 when I became Mayor of San Juan and up to the present, that I am now a member of the House of Representatives.”
Like Villar, JV Ejercito’s name also appears in the documents – he is listed as the sole director of Ice Bell Properties Limited. Records show the same San Juan city residential address that Ejercito wrote in his 2001 SALN.
Ownership, however, is lodged in a single-bearer share, which means no record of ownership is maintained by the company. Rather, ownership rests with whoever is in possession of the bearer instrument at any given time.
Ejercito’s Ice Bell Properties was incorporated in the BVI in July 1999, a time when he was overseeing a business conglomerate of close to 30 companies, including almost a dozen founded by his mother Guia Gomez, one of Estrada’s wives who is now the re-electionist mayor of San Juan City.
PCIJ checked with BVI authorities and found that Ice Bell Properties remains active as of last Tuesday, April 2, 2013.
Though they may not breaking any laws per se, politicians and public officials with ties to secret offshore corporations are regarded rather dimly by advocates of good governance.
“The intention is to hide the transactions or hide their income so they made use of tax havens or places where there are no rules on transparency,” said Milwida Guevara, a former undersecretary at the Department of Finance and one of the founders of the Movement for Good Governance, a civil society organization.
“It’s hypocritical that they are sponsoring legislation that calls for faithful compliance with laws. At the same time, they are themselves trying to get away with it,” says Guevara. - PCIJ, April 2013