ANA MARIE PAMINTUAN: JUMBLED

MANILA, September 5, 2003 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan  - We are grateful to anyone who exposes corruption in high places. In his days as a cop, Panfilo Lacson was good in operations and criminal investigation.

He will need to give the nation more enlightenment, however, about the laws that First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo is supposed to have violated. I have never been a fan of the First Gentleman; since the start of this administration I have suggested his exile. But the latest accusations against him have become lost in a jumble of titillating love letters, insinuations of a long-running extramarital affair and hints of salacious photographs. The Senate is adrift in a sea of scandal, with no one capable of taking control.

Lacson will also have to make clear that the real target of this exposé is President Arroyo herself, for her alleged failure to declare those millions in the Jose Pidal accounts in her statement of assets and liabilities.

This is, of course, assuming that she is aware of those accounts, particularly the joint accounts. So far, however, she is looking more and more like a wronged woman, and her husband is looking guiltier by the day – not of money laundering, but of lying to his wife.

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The First Gentleman is supposed to have diverted millions of pesos in contributions to his wife’s campaign to at least two bank accounts using the name Jose Pidal, and to joint accounts with his personal secretary and accountant, Victoria Toh. The campaign contributions did not come from government agencies, but from private individuals, none of whom has so far filed a complaint for campaign fund misuse.

There are supposed to be limits to campaign contributions, but I don’t remember election officials enforcing the rules. Otherwise all elective officials will go to jail. No one keeps tabs of the sources of campaign contributions either, so we can never tell if a particular candidate’s campaign is being bankrolled by drug dealers and gambling lords. There are people who run for public office only to raise campaign funds, fully aware that they don’t stand a chance of winning. You’ve heard the phrase "for the fund of it."

In case you’ve forgotten, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was a popular candidate; she topped the Senate elections before winning the vice presidency in 1998 by a margin greater than that of the very popular Joseph Estrada, who became president. It would not be surprising if she received a lot of campaign contributions.

So Mike Arroyo decided to put his wife’s excess campaign funds in private bank accounts. Is that illegal?

He decided to use an alias. But Philippine banks allow numbered accounts, and they do allow the use of aliases as long as they know the real identity of the depositor. Consider the leeway given to the man who opened the "Jose Velarde" account.

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The use of secret accounts is popular especially among potential victims of kidnapping and other crimes. When you are a ranking public official, however, or when your spouse is a ranking public official, and the nation learns that you have a secret account, the inevitable suspicion is that you are laundering funds. Especially when there is a Luis "Chavit" Singson who claims the money came from tobacco excise taxes and illegal gambling proceeds.

Joseph Estrada of course has insisted that he is not Jose Velarde, notwithstanding the eyewitness account of bank executive Clarissa Ocampo. That did not stop Estrada’s ouster as president.

Mike Arroyo also insists he is not Jose Pidal, and his kid brother Ignacio, now known to all as Iggy, has belatedly emerged to bolster the story.

The scandal is unlikely to kick Mike Arroyo’s wife out of Malacañang any time soon, what with general elections just eight months away. But the buzz is that the scandal has put such a strain on the Arroyos’ marriage that the First Gentleman has been staying away more often from the conjugal abode.

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This is supposed to be a money laundering case. But the anti-money laundering law does not cover bank deposits from campaign contributions. Officials of the Anti-Money Laundering Council said yesterday they could order the opening of bank accounts only if the deposits are suspected to have come from kidnapping, hijacking and drug trafficking.

What Lacson can harp on are contributions to the First Couple’s Lualhati Foundation allegedly coming from government agencies. But he has yet to make a strong case for this. His initial attempt to link President Arroyo directly to the scandal fizzled out with the convincing denial by Livia de Leon of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

What Lacson has succeeded in creating so far is an image of the First Gentleman diverting his wife’s campaign funds to purported secret accounts he maintains with his alleged mistress. Whether or not that’s illegal, it’s bad news for Mike Arroyo. The impression sticks despite his denial that he is Jose Pidal, and despite his denial that he is carrying on an affair with his secretary.

The First Gentleman lost credibility early in the game because of his initial denial that he knew a Jose Pidal. Perhaps those gaping holes in the kid brother’s story will be filled when Iggy faces the Senate. Perhaps the First Gentleman will eventually present compelling proof that he is not Jose Pidal. It better be soon, and the proof better not come from the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation.

Meanwhile, as a responsible member of the Senate, Lacson should be ready with more solid proof and reliable witnesses to bolster his story. We love the PowerPoint presentation, but the nation needs a clearer picture.

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ROTTEN EGGS: Among the most comic moments at the Senate hearing this weak, when Lacson dropped the second part of his "Incredible Hulk" bombshell, was when clueless senators kept browbeating former star witness Eugenio "Udong" Mahusay Jr., demanding to know if he was telling the truth this time. Did they really expect him to say he was lying?

When we’ve had enough of the clowns at the Senate, we can take a cue from the people of California. "Terminator" Arnold Schwarzenegger was pelted with an egg while on the stump in that state. Maybe the culprit had read about the entertainers turned politicians in the Philippines.

Bring out the rotten eggs.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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