Third of Four Parts
EXACTLY A year ago today, on Dec. 12, 2011, President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III marshaled votes from his Liberal Party and coalition allies in the House of Representatives to impeach then Chief Justice Renato C. Corona.
The chief magistrate, it was alleged, had failed to declare the true and full details of his wealth in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN).
But by most indications, many strands of Corona’s story find parallels in the state of wealth of most of his former colleagues at the Supreme Court, as of 2011.
For instance, like Corona, nearly all the justices retain sizeable caches of cash on hand and in bank. In fact, four justices have zero liabilities, as of their 2011 SALNs: Mariano C. del Castillo, Roberto A. Abad, Martin S. Villarama Jr., and Presbitero J. Velasco Jr.
Only two justices have loans or liabilities of around P5 million (Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe and Teresita J. Leonardo-de Castro), and only one with P16-million liabilities (Lucas P. Bersamin) on account of his wife’s business ventures. The rest of the justices have a little less or more than P1 million in loans.
Like Corona as well, land or real assets remain the pivot or bulk of the assets of at least four justices: Abad, Arturo D. Brion, Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado M. Peralta, and Perlas-Bernabe. All the rest, except for Velasco, have land estates accounting for 30 to 50 percent of their assets. The seemingly basement prices at which some justices acquired their houses and lots and agricultural land are incredible to say the least.
Unlike Corona though, several of the justices have fairly robust portfolios of equity interest in family corporations and holding companies, and in sundry stocks in corporate entities they did not identify in 2011 but had revealed in their previous SALNs. The most affluent in this category are Del Castillo, Antonio T. Carpio, Reyes, and Bersamin.
PCIJ obtained copies of the 2011 SALNs of 14 of the current Supreme Court justices from Solar Network News, the only media agency that has so far been given copies of the documents in 23 years, or since the high court issued a series of resolutions barring the disclosure of their SALNs. (PCIJ has yet to secure a copy of the 2011 SALN of the 15th justice, Mario Victor F. Leonen, who was appointed to the Court just a fortnight ago by President Aquino.)
PCIJ then reviewed the justices’ 2011 SALNs against SALNs that they had filed in earlier years while serving in other public agencies. The Center also checked out the companies named in the justices’ SALNs with records of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
In addition, all 14 justices received separate letters from PCIJ seeking clarification on apparent disparities in their SALNs. The letters drew a perfect tie of seven justices obliging, and seven others ignoring, PCIJ’s questions.
PCIJ’s review of the data enrolled in their SALNs through the years, however, yields a number of disparities that beg further explanation from the justices.
For instance, there is the matter of the largely sharp uptick in their net worth. This is the case for invariably all the justices, most of whom are apparently multimillionaires even though many of them had served for many years in government service where salary rates are not exactly known to be fabulous.
For another, there is the matter of the changing or rising acquisition costs, as well as static fair market values, for properties that some justices had declared in the SALNs. This is the case with Associate Justices Leonardo-de Castro, Peralta, del Castillo, and Bersamin. Meanwhile, Associate Justices Arturo D. Brion and Jose P. Perez did not even disclose the acquisition costs of their respective properties. Instead, Brion enrolled current fair market values, while Perez gave “improvement costs” as part of the total acquisition values.
For a third, there is the matter of corporate interests not disclosed in the SALNs of some justices but in which, SEC records show, they still retain equity interest as incorporators, shareholders, or officers. This is most notable in the cases of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes P.A. Sereno, Carpio, Velasco, and del Castillo.
For a fourth, there is the matter of conflict of interest situations – in law, could either be real, potential, or apparent – because of loans that they had acquired for companies in which their spouses have interests (Bersamin and Velasco), or in the case of another (Carpio), a family holding firm with office addresses at his former law firm’s old and new offices.
For a fifth, there is the matter of 12 justices bringing in two to six relatives as executive assistant, judicial staff, legislative staff or consultant in the Supreme Court and the electoral tribunals. They include the spouse, children, siblings, nephews, nieces, and in-laws of the justices.
At least four (Leonardo-de Castro, Peralta, Velasco, and Villarama) have at least six relatives each in government, majority employed by the high court and the electoral tribunals. Sereno did not declare having hired a kin in court, while Carpio listed the name of a “fourth-degree” relative as a Quezon City trial court judge.
For a sixth, there is the matter of bad math for two justices – Carpio and Peralta – who apparently failed to derive the correct sums of their assets, thus pruning the value of their true net worth.
And last but not least, there is the matter of the underdeclared or understated annual incomes of the justices. This is the case for 13 justices, if the Report on Salaries and Allowances (ROSA) that the Commission on Audit (COA) revealed was what they received in 2011 is the reference.
Associate Justices Abad, Brion, Perez, and Perlas-Bernabe even left the space for this information in their SALNs blank.
Nine others declared what was apparently their basic salary only and left out a slew of allowances, bonuses, and fringe benefits that they actually also received in 2011, according to COA’s 2011 ROSA, and which the Civil Service Commission’s Manual on SALN requires they should have disclosed as well. Only Peralta declared his income in 2011 to be a little higher than what the COA report said he received.
At least two of the justices who responded to PCIJ’s queries, however, acknowledged that they had been receiving substantial bonuses and allowances that they said partially explained why their net worth through the years had increased considerably.
Leonardo-de Castro even listed several of her allowances and bonuses in detail while Peralta wrote that since 2002 the salaries and allowances that he and his wife “derived from the Judiciary have more than doubled, if not tripled or quadrupled, to this day.” (Peralta’s wife has been an associate justice with the Court of Appeals since 2004.)
Peralta and Leonardo-de Castro are among the five associate justices who answered PCIJ’s clarificatory letters and who ranked relatively low in the high court’s net worth grid. Peralta weighed in at No. 8, with P22,642,264.73 while Leonardo-de Castro was No.13, with P7,941,000.00.
Villarama was at No. 9, with P19,074,165.20; Bersamin, No. 10, with P18,811,447.87; and Velasco at the tail-end with P7,264,064.00.
The two others who replied to PCIJ’s queries but were in the top half in terms of net worth are del Castillo, who occupied the No. 1 spot with a declared net worth in 2011 of P108,904,519.37; and Abad, whose net worth of P42,100,000 made him sixth on the list.
Richest didn’t reply
The seven who did not respond to the PCIJ’s letters include four who are among the wealthiest justices, by net worth.
They are Associate Justices Carpio, No. 2, with declared net worth of P79,895,025.57; Reyes, No. 3, with P75,146,199; Perlas-Bernabe, No. 4, with P67,101,327; and Jose C. Mendoza, No. 7, with P27,408,152.36.
Chief Justice Sereno, who wrote the PCIJ on behalf of “the majority” to say that they were declining to answer, ranked No.11 with a declared net worth of P18,029,575.51. Associate Justice Perez was at No. 12, with P9,380,000.
Associate Justice Brion filed an annual SALN (as opposed to a summary SALN) and so enrolled only his incremental net worth in 2011 of only P1,498,509.
Reporters had initially ranked Brion the poorest of the justices. But days later, through the high court’s press office, Brion clarified his unexplained poverty. He said that in his 2010 SALN, he had declared a net worth of P58,046,166.
Adding the two figures mean that by 2011, Brion’s net worth was already P59,544,675, making him the fifth wealthiest associate justice.
Net worth all rise
Looking at the past and the latest SALNs of the justices, PCIJ found that the rise in the net worth of three justices (Sereno, Carpio, and Perez) ranged from P267,408 to P32.62 million in the last two to three years. Carpio declared the highest increase among the three, shoring up his net worth by 69 percent in just one year.
For eight justices whose 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2011 SALNs are available, PCIJ found that the rise in their net worth ranged from P6.75 million to P81.65 million, or from 58 percent to 558 percent more, across a decade.
The rise or fall in the wealth of three justices (Abad, Perlas-Bernabe, and Velasco) could not be tracked because only their 2011 SALN is available.
The justices who responded offered a variety of reasons why their wealth grew by leaps and bounds through the years. Aside from their ever-growing salaries and allowances from the Court, some of the justices also cited income from equally or more successful spouses (including one who had a retirement benefit that reached almost P10 million) and having grown-up children who now have their own means of supporting themselves.
At least three cited additional income from giving lectures and teaching, as well as from writing books. One (Peralta) even mentioned a windfall from a raffle draw that saw him winning a car, which he “opted to convert into cash in the amount of P840,000.”
The responses to property-related questions are a bit harder to summarize. Associate Justice Peralta, for example, explained why he changed the acquisition cost of two properties he said he owns in Parañaque City this way: “The costs of the two (2) lots declared in the 2002 and 2003 SALN included the improvements therein, whereas in the 2011 SALN, the costs of the lots and the improvements were made separate in order to reflect a more accurate declaration in light of the renovation that was done in our house in 2006 to 2007.”
A comparison of Associate Justice Leonardo-de Castro’s older and latest SALNs showed that she had also increased the acquisition cost of her property in Merville, Paranaque, from 2002 to 2011.
In her 2002 SALN, Leonardo-de Castro declared the acquisition cost of this house that she said was constructed in 1984 at P250,000. In her 2011 SALN, the acquisition cost of the same house had soared multiple-fold at P5,000,000.
Her reply to the PCIJ: “The house in Merville, Parañaque was constructed on the lot donated to me by my parents, as mentioned in my SALN. The construction was funded through a PAG-IBIG loan and it was gradually improved through the years, through another PAG-IBIG loan after the first one was fully paid and contributions from members of the family. The acquisition cost of this family home includes the acquisition cost of the original structure and the improvements gradually introduced on the property.”
The justice’s 2011 SALN, in fact, enrolled a liability of “P5.9 million more or less” from” loans, mortgages, and PAG-IBIG Fund (HDMF), GSIS, etc.”
But Leonardo-de Castro has another property in Parañaque that caught PCIJ’s interest. According to her SALNs, she had bought and renovated it in 1997. Located in Dongalo, it was valued by the justice at P27,000. The zonal value of residential properties in Dongalo, Parañaque as of June 1996 was already pegged at P1,750 to P2,500 per square meter by the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Leonardo-de Castro explained, “The house in Dongalo, Paranaque was bought and renovated in 1977, not 1997, which is a typographical error. I do not have the title of ownership over the lot on which the house stands. Except for minor repairs, this house which is about 35 years old now has not been improved. Just recently, its assessed value was pegged at P21,170.00. The estimated floor area of the house is 47 square meters more or less.”
Two older SALNs that Leonardo-de Castro had filed in 2002 and 2003 said that the justice acquired the same property in 1997, not 1977.
Meantime, Associate Justice del Castillo reported the fair market value for a house and lot in Cainta, Rizal to be only P2,000,000 in 2011, or P600,000 lower than what he reported in 2002. Yet for another property, a condominium unit in Makati, Del Castillo reported the same current fair market value in his 2002 and 2011 SALNs.
In his reply to the PCIJ, Del Castillo said: “Please note at the outset that the market valuation of real properties are based on mere estimates since market valuation is the price at which a seller is willing to sell and a buyer is willing to buy. Since these properties were never offered for sale, the exact market value of these properties cannot be determined with certainty.”
He said, though, that property values in Cainta had “suffered severe depreciation because of the damage it suffered under Typhoon Ondoy. In fact, there are no property buyers who are willing to purchase properties in this area except at a very large discount.” As for his condo unit in Makati, the justice wrote: “The unit is already about 10 years old and certainly cannot appreciate in value because of the glut of newer and more modern units.”
Associate Justice Bersamin, for his part, has a piece of land in Las Piñas acquired in 1985, and properties in Abra and Las Piñas that he declared in his 2003 SALN to be worth the same fair market values in his 2011 SALN. His explanation: “The fair market values of my family's assets situated in Abra and Las Piñas, except the land in Las Piñas acquired in 1985, have remained unchanged from 2003 until 2011 (and will so remain in the immediate future) because my wife and I have no intention of selling any of them to others.”
When it came to corporate-interest questions, the responses were relatively shorter.
Del Castillo, for example, wrote back: “I do not have any business interest or financial connection with any business association or corporation. My wife, in connection with her practice, acts as director and Corporate Secretary in various corporations. As director, she holds a qualifying one share in such corporations which are disclosed in reportorial requirements filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
The justice is married to Cynthia Roxas del Castillo, former dean of the Ateneo de Manila Law School and senior partner at the Romulo Mabanta de los Angeles Sayoc Law. Records of most of the companies that list the justice’s wife as incorporator bear the magistrate out. Mrs. Del Castillo, however, is listed as incorporator and president as well of Oro Group Ventures, Inc., where records show her to be among the nine who each own about 3.5 percent of the total shares. Ricardo J. Romulo owns the largest share with more than 20 percent, while three other incorporators, 10 percent each.
Associate Justice Velasco, asked why he did not disclose his wife’s participation as chairperson of the board of the Kapatirang Marinduqueño Inc. and as director of the Metro Manila Alliance of Transport Sector (MMATS) in his 2011 SALN, replied that the two entities “as per information, are non-profit and non-stock corporations and hence my wife and I do not have any business interests therein.”
But the implementing rules and regulations of Republic Act No. 6713 (Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees or the SALN Law) states: “The Disclosure of Business Interest and Financial Connections shall contain information on any existing interest in, or any existing connection with, any business enterprises or entities, whether as proprietor, investor, promoter, partner, shareholder, officer, managing director, executive, creditor, lawyer, legal consultant or adviser, financial or business consultant, accountant, auditor, and the like, the name and addresses of the business enterprises or entities, the dates when such interests or connections were established, and such other details as will show the nature of the interests of connections.”
Son in Congress
Velasco’s son, Lord Allan Jay, who is currently the congressman of Marinduque, is also one of the incorporators and directors of Kapatiran and MMATS.
Kapatiran’s primary purpose, according to its 2011 General Information Sheet (GIS) is “to conceptualize and implement programs geared towards the alleviation of poverty in Marinduque,” as well as “to provide education through scholarship, training, and seminars to the marginalized people of Marinduque.”
The 2011 GIS of MMATS says that its primary purpose is “to create and pursue programs for the benefit of operators of jitneys, tricycles, trisikad, and other forms of transportation, their drivers, mechanics and employees. To help and participate in the governance of our country with Filipino values.”
Interestingly, the business interest section of Velasco’s 2011 SALN – which was not signed by his wife – bears this note: “Separation of property with spouse.”
Associate Justice Abad’s reply to PCIJ’s queries was the most terse. He wrote, “I believe that I have filed a sufficiently detailed SALN as required by law. Since you have access to public records, I have no doubt that you will discover the details you need and, from these, the fact that I acquired the substance of my assets before I joined the government and that I filed an honest SALN.”
In his 2011 SALN, the justice had not disclosed his business interests in Neo-Prex Trading Corp., whose GIS for 2010, 2011, and 2012 at the SEC listed him to be an incorporator and stockholder.
Neo-Prex’s corporate records show that its address is the same as Omni-Prex, another entity identified with Abad. That address is also listed as Abad’s residential address in Neo-Prex’s records. In an earlier reply letter to the PCIJ dated May 28, 2010, Abad had actually confirmed that he remains a stockholder of Neo-Prex Trading Corp.
Big debt, no issue?
Corporate interests could present conflict-of-interest issues for the justices. So could significant amounts of debt. Problems may arise should the justices find themselves having to decide cases that involve their creditors or companies they or their family members have interests in.
Bersamin stands out among the justices by the sheer depth of his indebtedness: Although he declared having total assets of almost P35 million, he had liabilities that came to more than P16 million. As a result, his 2011 net worth plunged to P18.8 million.
PCIJ asked Bersamin how an officer of the court like him could avoid running into real, potential, or apparent conflicts of interest situations vis-à-vis his creditors: Philippine Savings Bank, Transmarco/Almanach (Singapore), Jebsen & Co. (Hongkong), Videotech (Hongkong), Clao Realty Corp., and Cambria Realty & Development Corp.
“I do not see the possibility of any conflict-of-interest (real, potential or perceived) ever developing vis-a-vis Philippine Savings Bank as creditor,” the justice replied. “The loan from that bank was taken many years ago yet when I was still in the Regional Trial Court in Quezon City. Since then until now I have not been in peril of jeopardizing my neutrality as a judge in all the levels of the Judiciary that I have been. Nor have I received or extended any special or irregular concessions on account of the transaction. You can find out about this from the bank itself, if you wish. I assure you that the choice of that bank was based on the promotional offers of housing loans advertised to the public in general.”
“As to Transmarco/Almanach (Singapore), Jebsen & Co. (Hongkong) and Videotech (Hongkong), the suppliers of the family business, it has been my wife who has transacted with them,” he said. “Nonetheless, no conflict-of-interest (real, potential or perceived) can possibly arise in their transactions due to such companies being based abroad.”
Besides, Bersamin wrote, “Clao Realty Corporation and Cambria Realty & Development Corporation deal in real estate. I am not aware if either corporation has had any matter in the courts.” – With additional research and reporting by Rowena F. Caronan, PCIJ, December 2012