REPOSTED FROM THE INTERNATIONAL CONSORTIUM OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISTS’ WEBSITE
Sheila Coronel is the director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Last month, she was named as the next academic dean of the journalism school, a position she will assume in July. Prior to joining Columbia, Coronel founded the Phillippine Center for Investigative Journalism, where her reporting on corruption and graft by then-President Joseph Estrada helped bring about his impeachment and subsequent resignation. She recently spoke with ICIJ for its “Secrets of the Masters” series.
As the director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, your reporting revealed the massive personal fortune compiled by then-President Joseph Estrada. How did you report that story and what were your main findings?
That story was fundamentally a way of proving corruption – not by getting evidence of the actual corrupt acts, which was difficult, but by investigating where the proceeds of corruption went. We had heard rumors of large-scale bribery and commissions from government contracts and the sale of shares in state-owned companies. Because it was almost impossible to prove bribery, we decided to go after the fruits of bribery instead.
Estrada was a former movie star who had five mistresses and he was building fabulous mansions in the ritziest parts of Manila for them. None of these properties were in his or his family members’ names. They were registered in the names of shell companies and it was difficult to show real ownership. What we were able to do was establish a pattern in the acquisitions: the same law firms were used to incorporate the companies, the same nominees fronted for the purchases, the same architects were used, the same interior designers, landscape architects, etc. Even the design of the houses was the same because Estrada went home to a different house every night, frequently intoxicated, and so didn’t want to be stumbling in unfamiliar territory.
We also spoke to a number of people, including builders, neighbors, friends and associates who had interacted with Estrada in relation to those properties. We found that Estrada had bought 17 pieces of real estate in just the first two years of his presidency, and we said that based on his income tax return and his financial disclosures, he couldn’t have legitimately afforded them. We also found dozens of companies that had been formed by him and his families, and none of these were disclosed in his asset statement. We discovered thriving business enterprises set up by the more entrepreneurial mistresses and these businesses had assets that could not be explained by the president’s legitimate earnings.