Estrada’s Fronts: Cronies and Attornies
by SHEILA S. CORONEL, YVONNE T. CHUA, LUZ RIMBAN and VINIA M. DATINGUINOO
IN THE LAST three years, companies controlled by cronies of President Joseph Estrada acquired close to P1 billion worth of land and houses in some of Metro Manila’s poshest and most exclusive districts.
Although none of these properties are registered in Estrada’s name, the President or one of his wives would later live or be seen visiting the properties, sometimes even supervising construction.
Corporate and land records show that the acquisition of over 18,500 square meters of some of the country’s choicest real estate was made through businessmen Jacinto Ng, a long-time Estrada friend; real estate developer Jose Luis Yulo, the disgraced former chair of the Presidential Commission on Mass Housing and the President’s drinking buddy; and Lucio Co, owner of the Puregold Duty Free Shops and frequent Malacañang visitor.
The purchases were made from some of the country’s oldest families. These include the Madrigal shipping clan, which sold a 7,000-square meter estate in New Manila, Quezon City, and the grandchildren of publishing magnate Ramon Roces who sold a 3,000-square meter compound in Wack Wack, Mandaluyong City to companies that appear to be fronting for the President.
The other acquisitions are five lots totaling over 5,000 square meters in Wack Wack, four of them from the prominent Roxas-Chua family, which made a fortune from sugar, alcohol and banking.
These purchases, if they were indeed made on Estrada’s behalf, raise questions about the sources of the President’s wealth and the possibility that the amounts used to buy them were illegally obtained. These properties could be confiscated if they are proven to have been purchased from ill-gotten wealth.
After all, Estrada’s declared net income in 1999 was only P2.3 million. That same year, he declared a net worth of only P35.8 million. Even Ilocos Sur Governor Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson’s allegations that the President received as much as P550 million in jueteng pay-offs from November 1998 to August 2000 cannot explain how money was raised to fund these land purchases, if they were really made for Estrada.
Our investigation shows that they were. We discovered a network of front corporations that were used as conduits for these acquisitions. The task of overseeing the formation of the corporate infrastructure for these purchases, several sources interviewed for this report say, fell on lawyer Edward S. Serapio, who was appointed presidential assistant for political affairs in April 1999.
Serapio, a bar topnotcher and valedictorian of his law class at the Ateneo, is a senior partner in the De Borja Medialdea Bello Guevarra Serapio & Gerodias law firm, which is known in lawyering circles for its closeness to the Estrada administration.
“Ed was at the Presidential Residence nearly every night,” Singson said in an interview. “Ka-meeting palagi ng presidente pag wala nang tao. Siya ang umaayos ng korporsayon niya, eh (He was always meeting with the President after everyone had left. He was the one arranging the corporations).”
“Ed is one of the President’s personal lawyers,” said Press Secretary Ricardo Puno, and it was to him that questions about Estrada’s assets and liabilities were referred. Puno refused to take questions about the President’s personal properties, saying these were queries that were best directed to Serapio and other lawyers.
Serapio, said Singson, was the “attorney” he referred to in his taped conversation with Yolanda Ricaforte, who is alleged to be the President’s “auditor.” In that tape, which was made public last week, Singson asked Ricaforte whether she had “transferred” P200 million worth of jueteng collections to “attorney,” and Ricaforte said yes.
In an interview, Singson alleged that the P200 million was deposited by Serapio in a bank account before it was transferred to a foundation Estrada had set up. Despite repeated calls to his office, Serapio refused to talk to PCIJ; he hung up when he was reached through his mobile phone.
The lawyer’s closeness to Estrada is advertised in the De Borja firm’s Website, which says: “In addition to his regular duties and responsibilities, Atty. Serapio is tasked, among others, to provide advice on any legal matter or issue of special concern to the President and to perform such other duties as may be instructed by the President. Atty. Serapio reports directly to the President.”
On July 12, 1999, five partners in Serapio’s law firm formed two corporations that appear to have provided the legal cover to purchase two chunks of real estate. In SEC records, both these firms put down the office of the De Borja law firm as their address.
St. Peter Holdings Corp., which lists Serapio’s five law partners as incorporators, appears in land records as the buyer of a 7,145-square meter property at 100, 11th St., New Manila, which was until recently used as a temporary residence by Laarni Enriquez, a former movie starlet who is said to be the President’s favorite wife.
After St. Peter was formed, the incorporators endorsed most of their shares to Yulo, who ended up owning 99.8 percent of the stock and assuming the chairmanship of the firm, according to the general information sheet filed by St. Peter with the SEC.
“We incorporated only to expedite the filing of papers,” said Raul Gerodias, Serapio’s law partner who appears as president of St. Peter. “We held it in trust for Jose Yulo. I don’t even know Yulo personally. That’s our job, I do it for a lot of people I don’t really know.” In September, Gerodias quit as the firm’s president. The three other incorporators have resigned as directors of the corporation. “We don’t have anything to do with it anymore,” says Gerodias.
On October 1, 1999, Yulo, as St Peter’s chairman, signed the deed of sale of the New Manila property. Two weeks later, he was named head of the government housing program.
That deed shows that the property was purchased for P86.7 million or about P12,000 per square meter. Current market values for land in that area, according to real estate agents, range from P25,000 to P28,000 per square meter. The land alone, at current market rates, is worth at least P178.6 million.
The house that comes with the property has been renovated since the purchase and is now worth, in the estimate of builders, about P150 million. The renovations include temperature-controlled rooms, a giant gazebo, a smoke machine, and a swimming pool with real sand and a wave-making gadget, those who have been there say.
It was in this house, which Singson refers to as “Boracay,” that Estrada met earlier this year with the Ilocos Sur governor, jueteng lord Bong Pineda, and BW Resources head Dante Tan to discuss the future of jueteng in the country. Puno himself admitted to having attended a dinner party there, together with the President and some Cabinet officials.
Meanwhile, Becks Resources Corp., formed on the same day with the same incorporators and the same address as St. Peter, is listed as the owner of two parcels of land totaling 2,327 square meters at 973-975 Stanford St., Wack Wack. The going rate for land in the area is P40,000 per square meter. This property is therefore worth about P93 million.
The purchase of this land last June from the heirs of Cesaria Agular, a psychiatrist who recently died, brings the total of Wack Wack properties that appear to belong to Estrada to 11,388 square meters or P455.5 million at current market prices. This makes him the biggest landowner in the whole of exclusive Wack Wack, residents say.
Except for the 1,162-square meter property at 771 Harvard St., where Enriquez has lived since the mid-1990, all of this land was purchased only since 1998. Land records say that the Harvard St. residence was bought by Ng in 1993 and sold for P38.8 million in August 1998 to FVC Realty and Development Corporation, a company associated with Lucio Co.
Sources close to Enriquez say that she lived in New Manila from July to early October this year while the Harvard house was being renovated and expanded to include the adjacent Stanford St. property. A map of Wack Wack shows that the Harvard and Stanford St. properties are back to back.
Residents interviewed for this report, but who asked not to be named, say they saw the President and Enriquez inspecting the Stanford St. property sometime in the middle of this year. The residents also say Enriquez was interested in buying a 975-square meter property on Stanford St. owned by the family of former Commerce Secretary Marcelo Balatbat, which has reportedly refused three offers from Estrada’s representatives.
Earlier, a 3,084 square-meter compound that once belonged to Ramon Roces, the older brother of former Manila Times publisher Joaquin ‘Chino’ Roces, was purchased by Verdant Forest Highlands Inc., which appears to be another shell company, formed in 1997 by lawyers from the ACCRA law firm founded by Agriculture Secretary Edgardo Angara. Sources close to Roces’s grandchildren, the Davilas, as well as individuals who helped process the sale, but who asked not to be named, say that the property was actually bought for the President.
The most spectacular of the Wack Wack acquisitions, however, is the 4,815-square meter property at 796-800 Harvard St. where a huge house with a floor area of 2,300 square meters is currently being finished. The house is like a spa: It has three saunas, a mini-theater and a full-sized gym, said village officials who have seen the building plan. It even has a beauty parlor and basement parking, according to an interior decorator who has been there.
About half of that land (796-798 Harvard) was originally in the name of KB Space Holdings, a company owned by the Roxas-Chua family. In 1998, KB Space Holdings was bought by Jacinto Ng and his associates, according to SEC records. In October that year, land records show, KB Space bought 800 Harvard from Einstee Realty. Altogether the five parcels of land have a market value of P192 million.
Construction on the property began in 1999, so that in its 1999 financial statement, KB Space reported construction worth P71 million. Estimates for the cost of the house, which is being built for Enriquez, are in the P150-million range.
“We were informed that the construction belonged to Erap,” said one village official. “They used every piece of heavy equipment you can think of—bulldozers, graders, you name it. In the beginning, they put up a 20-foot curtain made of plastic sacks to cover the construction, but that attracted even more attention. Ask any worker there and they’ll tell you it belongs to the President. In the early part of the construction, he would even be seen there. Laarni lived just two to three blocks down the road and she has been seen at the construction many times.”
By all accounts, the President has a fondness for grand housing. “Makikita mo mahilig siya talaga sa bahay (You can really sense his love for houses),” said Karina David of Estrada’s passion for building. David was a member of the Estrada Cabinet and a close associate of the President until her resignation last year. “Houses are like toys to him, like Pokemon. Anywhere we went, he would look at the structures and make comments. He has good taste. He designs the houses himself.”
The businessmen that appear on paper to own the properties—Ng, Co and Yulo—have apparently helped indulge the President’s appetite for houses by lending a plausible legal cover for Estrada’s acquisitions. After all, Ng and Co are successful businessmen with fortunes that can account for their capacity to afford these purchases. Yulo, on the other hand, is a member of one of the country’s wealthiest landowning families, but was forced to resign from office when it was shown that he was facing lawsuits for issuing bouncing checks and not paying credit card bills.
The fact that none of these three businessmen or their families actually live in these houses and that it is the President or his mistress who is seen in those areas raise questions about who the properties’ real owner is. Moreover, the companies that own the land and houses appear to be merely convenient covers for the purchases.
For example, the corporate records of St. Peter’s Holdings, which owns the New Manila property, show that it has a paid-up capital of only P62,500. How can a company with such a small capitalization buy tens of millions of pesos worth of real estate?
Curiously enough, Becks Resources, which bought the Stanford St. land adjacent to Enriquez’s home in Wack Wack, has exactly the same paid-up capital, with the same distribution of shares to the same set of incorporators as St. Peter’s.
In fact, a search of SEC records shows that the same incorporators formed two other companies with the same distribution of shares and the same paid-up capital in July and August 1999, at about the same time that St Peter’s and Becks were set up. It is possible that there are other similar land acquisitions, but these have not yet come to light.
For example, in the last two years, vacation homes were bought in Baguio and Tagaytay for various presidential women, according to residents in these two areas. Singson said that he has visited—and played mah-jongg—in two log cabins which the President appears to own at the exclusive Tagaytay Highlands. He also recalled a mah-jongg game held at a penthouse at Asiaworld Towers on Roxas Boulevard, where Philippine Airlines stewardess Rowena Lopez, with whom the President supposedly had a short-lived affair, stayed for some time.
Indeed, the President’s friends seem privy to his secrets and his unorthodox lifestyle. They also seem to be willing to go to great lengths—including setting up front companies—to please him.
In 1998 and 1999, for example, Yulo served as Estrada’s “sidekick, semi-companion and semi-bodyguard,” said David, who fought—and lost—a battle for control of the government housing program to Yulo, who lasted only 28 days in his post.
The President likes to hang out with friends like Yulo, who was his constant companion in late-night Palace parties, where the bearded, avuncular real estate developer with a good singing voice was jokingly referred to as “Pavarotti,” said David. But, she added, “He was obviously not just a traveling companion or court jester; I think he was also fronting for New Manila and other deals.”
In return, the President made calls on Yulo’s behalf: one to the public works department to construct a road through the Yulo estate in Canlubang, Laguna, and another to the agrarian reform department, to approve a land conversion petition filed by the Yulo family, said David, who was there when the calls were made.
Co, too, appears to have benefited from his closeness to the President. Accused of being among the top smugglers in the country, he emerged unscathed from an investigation in August 1999, despite allegations that the Bureau of Customs granted him a private bonded warehouse despite a moratorium on such warehouses, which are often used as fronts for smuggling. Co, who was reported to have contributed P100 million to Estrada’s campaign, has also been accused of using his duty-free shops to smuggle chicken, cigarettes and canned food.
Ng, meanwhile, is the most reclusive of the President’s associates. His business interests range from food manufacturing to timber and banking. His closeness to Estrada dates back to the President’s days as San Juan mayor. Ng was a ninong at presidential son Jinggoy Estrada’s wedding and also stood as godfather in the baptism of Jacob, the President’s youngest son by Enriquez. (with Chay Florentino-Hofileña)
A television version of this story will be aired at 10:30 p.m. tonight over The Correspondents, ABS-CBN Channel 2.
Copyright © 2000 All rights reserved.
PHILIPPINE CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM