MANILA, January 15, 2003 (STAR) By Sammy Santos  - Ousted President Joseph Estrada told a Senate hearing yesterday he turned down a $14-million bribe from Manila Rep. Mark Jimenez in 1999 to speed up approval of a $450-million government contract with the Argentine firm Industrias Metalurgicas Pescarmona Sociedad Anonima (Impsa).

Estrada said that sometime in mid-1999, Jimenez began following up documents related to Impsa’s proposal to build or rehabilitate and operate four hydroelectric power plants, with a combined capacity of 750 megawatts, for the state-run National Power Corp. (Napocor).

Jimenez, who left for the United States last month to face fraud and tax evasion charges in Miami, Florida, has repeatedly denied that he made a bribe offer to either Estrada or President Arroyo in connection with the Impsa contract, Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. (Lakas, Surigao del Sur) said yesterday.

A long police convoy, guarded by police helicopters, transported Estrada several kilometers from the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC) in Quezon City to the Senate building in Pasay City, which was ringed with riot troops to keep his mostly impoverished fans at bay.

Motorcycle police cleared normally clogged roads to let the convoy through. About 2,000 to 3,000 police officers were deployed to protect Estrada.

It was the first time since his arrest in April 2001 that Estrada was allowed to make a public appearance as a witness before the Senate committee on government corporations and private enterprises, headed by Sen. John Osmeña, which is investigating charges of payoffs in the Impsa deal.

Two opposition senators have alleged that the government had effectively overpaid Impsa, which began the project in 2001.

During the hearing, Estrada pointed out that he did not consider Jimenez’s approach to be a bribe attempt at the time.

Estrada claimed he could have ordered the presidential guards to arrest Jimenez for bribery but there was no overt offer from Jimenez, who was "very formal with his words."

Had Jimenez been more direct in his bribe offer, Estrada said he would have arrested Jimenez "right there and then."

Estrada quoted Jimenez as telling him: "Sir, $14 million has been reserved for the Office of the President."

"I was not interested in receiving anything from anybody," the former president said.

He claimed to have told Jimenez, "That is not needed, the contract cannot have a sovereign guarantee."

Estrada said he assumed Jimenez was representing Impsa even though he did not show any proof to this effect.

He added that he told Jimenez he did not want to talk about any contract with a direct sovereign guarantee, and banned Jimenez from seeing him at Malacañang for some time.

Estrada claimed to have linked Jimenez’s $14-million bribe offer to the revelation made by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism that the Impsa deal had been approved four days after President Arroyo assumed office.

He also cited a paper trail elaborated upon by Sen. Panfilo Lacson, his former national police chief, on a $2-million account in Coutts Bank-Hong Kong allegedly owned by Ernest Escaler, a brother-in-law of resigned justice secretary Hernando Perez.

Estrada also revealed that Perez, through a "mutual friend," requested him to talk to Lacson and urged him not to expose the Coutts Bank deposit under Escaler’s account.

‘No to sovereign guarantee’

Estrada maintained that during his presidency, he had never allowed the signing of a contract that would allow sovereign guarantee to a contractor.

He dismissed allegations that he approved the Impsa contract, saying his role in the project was to participate in the "ceremonial signing" of a preliminary agreement on the project.

Estrada also said that together with his economic advisers, they had concluded that the contract was aboveboard until Perez inserted a clause in the Impsa deal allowing a direct sovereign guarantee.

After the hearing, Lacson issued a statement accusing Malacañang of "pocketing $4 million out of the $14 million" which he said Jimenez "shelled out" for the approval of the Impsa deal.

Lacson said he was informed by Jimenez that "out of the $14 million, $2 million went to then Justice Secretary Hernando Perez, $4 million went to Malacañang and $1 million ‘for the boys.’"

Jimenez, Lacson added, did not tell him where the remaining $7 million went but gave him "copies of documents showing details of the bribe distribution."

Lacson said he submitted the documents to the Office of the Ombudsman several months back for the government to investigate Perez and those who allegedly received the bribe money from Impsa. However, he said the Arroyo administration has not acted on them.

After Jimenez allegedly approached Estrada about the Impsa deal, he became Estrada’s presidential adviser on Latin American affairs.

The contract was finalized a few days after Estrada was ousted amid military-backed massive protests on Jan. 20, 2001, according to Estrada, fueling speculation that the bribe may have been offered to officials under his successor, Mrs. Arroyo.

Crispin Remulla, a spokesman for Estrada, said then Justice Secretary Perez declared that the contract provisionally signed under Estrada was legally valid, paving the way for it to be finalized a few days after Mrs. Arroyo was catapulted to power.

The President’s aides told a news briefing Monday that the deal was finalized under Estrada and not during her time.

Former justice secretary Artemio Tuquero, who also testified yesterday, contradicted the claims of Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and Energy Secretary Vince Perez that the Impsa deal was approved during the Estrada administration.

He said he never signed a legal opinion approving a "sovereign guarantee" for the Impsa deal and that the projects proponents only got the "financial closure" to proceed with the project during the Arroyo administration.

Tuquero said that allegations he was among those who passed the Impsa deal have brought him "dishonor" and were "false and malicious."

Jimenez’s supporters said that the he has repeatedly denied making the bribe offer to Estrada on several occasions.

Pichay, who accompanied Jimenez on his voluntary return to the US along with Rep. Willie Villarama, said the $2 million Jimenez claimed Perez extorted from him had nothing to do with the Impsa deal.

He described as a "false account" Lacson’s claim that Jimenez told the senator that half of the supposed $14 million Impsa bribe was given to Perez, Malacañang and "for the boys."

Pichay said he could not imagine why Lacson "can concoct a $14 million bribery scenario when it is just an illusion because it never happened."

At the hearing, Estrada took the opportunity to complain that his skin has acquired a sickly pallor because his jailers have denied him sunlight.

Looking thinner and pale, the former president asked senators that he be allowed to sunbathe like other prisoners.

"I can’t understand why they won’t let me enjoy the sun. I cannot go outside my small room," he said.

Estrada added that he was prepared to suffer, but that his co-accused, his son and former San Juan mayor Jinggoy Estrada, be allowed to post bail.

"Never mind about me, I am willing to suffer and prepared to rot in detention, because I know in the end the truth will come out," he said.

Estrada said he wants to be placed under house arrest but noted he was at "the mercy of the court."

"I said time and again that I have lost my trust and confidence in the justice system, especially those people who are running it. So I don’t care," he said, when asked to comment on reports that Mrs. Arroyo wants to see his case settled by the time she steps down next year.

Estrada is accused of plundering a personal fortune of P4 billion during his 30 months in office and theoretically faces the death penalty if found guilty.

The Philippine National Police (PNP), on the other hand, was satisfied with its performance in transporting Estrada to and from his hearing at the Senate regarding the controversial Impsa deal.

PNP director for community relations Director Ricardo de Leon attributed Estrada’s smooth transfer from his detention cell at the VMMC to the Senate to the security preparedness of the police.

"Everything was smooth. There was no untoward incident. That means our operation was successful," De Leon said.

He said that the PNP is comfortable with the present arrangement, wherein Estrada, along with his son, is confined at the VMMC.

Reacting to moves to place Estrada and his son under house arrest, De Leon said the PNP believes it can handle the situation better at VMMC rather than at Estrada’s house on Polk street at the posh North Greenhills subdivision in San Juan.

The PNP, however, will have to comply with any decision made by the Sandiganbayan over the issue of house arrest, according to De Leon. The PNP, he added, has yet to conduct a study on the possibility of house arrest for the Estradas.

Sub judice

Meanwhile, Jimenez’s lawyer deplored yesterday the continuing vilification campaign against his client.

Ed Escueta said that local government officials should refrain from commenting on the hearing being held by a Florida court on misdemeanor charges, including making illegal political contributions, filed against Jimenez.

"The case is sub judice and outside the jurisdiction of the Philippine government and the local justice system," Escueta said. "Jimenez voluntarily submitted himself to US jurisdiction, and local officials should refrain from commenting and reporting on a subject they are not legally concerned with."

Escueta was referring to news reports quoting Ricardo Diaz, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) International Police division chief, as saying that "Florida authorities were puzzled by Jimenez’s declaration to the Florida court hearing his case that he had much less money than what he declared in his statement of Aassets and liabilities (SAL) he had filed with the Commission on Audit on April 30, 2002."

Diaz had no business giving "erroneous updates" on the legal proceedings concerning Jimenez, Escueta said, adding that Diaz did not have any basis for saying that Jimenez misdeclared his assets and liabilities.

"If the NBI did not know what was the ‘minimal amount’ Jimenez declared in the US court, as reported in local papers, how can it say there was a discrepancy between his SAL in the Philippines and his declared worth in the US?" Escueta said.

He added that "if local government officials cannot say anything good about Jimenez, who remains a citizen of the Philippines and a congressman in good standing, they should refrain from commenting on his trial in the US and respect the constitutional provision that a man is innocent unless proven guilty." — With reports from Christina Mendez, Jess Diaz, AFP

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