MANILA, January 12, 2004 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - "It came upon a midnight clear," the familiar Christmas carol goes, "that glorious song of old."

Something else came upon a midnight clear during the Yuletide season, and it was not so glorious. In fact, itís downright suspicious.

Iím not saying Ė as yet Ė that a recent clandestinely-conducted deal is anomalous. I refer to the arrangement by which the Henry Sy group, spearheaded by his SM and Banco de Oro, will literally take over a huge chunk of one of the biggest banks in the nation, the Equitable PCIBank, by snapping up the 29 percent holdings of the Social Security System (SSS) at a fantastic discount, and, hold your breath: six years to pay! Correct me if Iím wrong, but my eyebrows went up in amazement when I learned that Henry and daughter, Banco de Oro Chair Teresita T. Sy-Gozun and their group, had staged such a "coup" over the holidays that it has become the talk of the business world.

Sanamagan, if I were given six years to pay Ė i.e., buying a major piece of such a huge bank on the installment plan Ė even poor Saluyot penny-pinching me could have organized a group with enough collateral and clout to purchase this commanding treasure trove of shares with six years to pay on an installment basis. Why, our bunch could have financed the payments, if we were given the bank to operate, out of the foreign exchange transactions and operations of the bank alone.

Iím not claiming, as yet, that there was chicanery, stealth, evil intent involved Ė but, gee whiz, the entire mammoth, and suddenly-revealed transaction (a fait accompli before anybody ever heard of it) smells a bit too much like the awful Pantranco deal of the Marcos Administration in which Macoyís son-in-law acquired the huge Pantranco North bus corporation for a song, and was permitted to pay for the busline in installments. It was attacked at the time as anomalous, with critics pointing out that the favored group could pay for the bus company out of the daily cash-and-carry bus fare receipts. Niluto sa sariling manteka! Thatís what they cried out then.

Again, Iím not declaring, as yet, that such is the current case.

When the Opposition wakes up from its current internecine squabbles (which continue to rage despite protestations of "unity" talks), perhaps it ought to pointedly question this deal as one of the GMA Administrationís "fast breaks" (of which there seems to be several).

Whatís more, many prominent big shots and wise guys of the Makati Business Club are obviously involved in the Equitable PCIBank take-over affair. Their names are ponderous in the Business Pages. Why, arenít the sober-sided stalwarts of the Makati Business Club the ones whoíve been calling out mightily for "good governance" and ethics in business? And transparency?

Oh well. From that distinguished roster come the fellows as well as lawyers involved in the PIATCO (NAIA Terminal 3) boondoggle, the BW scam, et cetera. People look more virtuous, I suppose, when they come from well-manicured board rooms and sport crisp Barong Tagalog and bespoke business suits. (Not to mention flashy tuxedos, superior to those worn by maitres-dís and head waiters.)

* * *

To be sure, this writer got even more alarmed than reassured when I saw Equitable PCIBank Vice Chair Cora de la Paz, our friend, trying to explain the deal on the ANC-ABS-CBN channel the other day.

Cora defended the transaction, remarking that anyway the Board members hadnít gotten any "dividends", etc. That seemed to be begging the question. The "explanation" has provoked more questions. For instance, why was there no bidding held for the award of those delicious SSS shares?

Who decided to "give" the deal to the "winners", since there was no contest?

Are there other deals in the offing, such as the sale of the other government shares, like the big stake of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), and other government entities? Indeed, the government owns the majority of the stock of that giant Equitable PCIBank, which mystifies me even more when one realizes that the Go family still controls the bank, even though the Go stake there has shrunk to only 20 percent. As it is, the present Equitable PCIBank Chairman is Antonio Go. Who keeps the Goís in power Ė a power which, if the rumor mills are grinding correctly, may shortly go to Henry Sy and his group? All those power games make one dizzy, where billions of bucks are at issue, while poor peasants and proletarians like you and me exert ourselves greatly to learn a few grubby pesos.

And these switcheroos and razzle-dazzle operations are taking place during the last official months (unless re-elected) of the GMA dispensation and the K-4 government of Katapatan, etc.

Columnist Neal H. Cruz has already alleged that SSS members (you and I included, I guess) will lose P8 bllion as a result of this Christmas-time bargain sale Ė which he called "like a huge Christmas gift to Banco de Oro".

Banco de Oro is, of course, roundly denying that it plans to merge with Equitable PCIBank, but who knows? The future still lies ahead, along with "the best-laid plans of mice and men".

I think that this deal and its aftermath call for investigation Ė before itís too late. Sus, it may already be too late.

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The Supreme Court, itís "speculated", will rule very soon on the very controversial contract "won" by the Mega Pacific Consortium in which the machines to be used by the Commission on Elections in the vote-count were sourced from South Korea.

Will the Supreme Court annul the contract? If so, the High Court should issue its ruling soonest Ė this very week, in fact Ė so that the Comelec can still do what is necessary to ensure that the scheduled May elections are not postponed, or, worse, cancelled.

The petition to annul the award to supply the automated equipment to Mega Pacific Consortium was filed with the High Court by a civic group, the Information Technology Foundation, composed of entities and individuals interested in the promotion and use of computers. It was not one of the bidders for the multibillion-peso contract. Neither is it interested in the award of the contract to any particular entity. It asserts that the use in the May election of the equipment supplied by Mega would result in a failed election because of the flaws in the hardware and software to be utilized.

In issuing its ruling, then, the Supreme Court must clearly explain the flaws in the award and why, as contested by the petitioner, the equipment supplied by Mega Pacific Consortium will not do an efficient job to ensure a credible electoral process.

If this can be demonstrated by the Courtís decision, then all those who had a hand in the award of the contract to the "winning" bidder should be made accountable, if not immediately because of the pressing need to rectify the fiasco, but Ė it must be insisted Ė right after the elections. This is one scam that should not be forgiven and forgotten.

In short, Information Technology Foundation (if it succeeds in getting the High Court to void the deal) ought to finish the task, by making those behind the award of this contract pay for their malfeasance Ė if, of course, the ITFís suit is upheld by the Supreme Court. That civic group has to file the necessary charges against all who contrived to ram the questioned deal through. And I mean all.

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If former President Joseph Estrada and his boys donít stop making all those noises about delaying Erapís departure, not being able to secure a US visa, and seeking to get permission to go to another country for his knee and spinal surgery, the Sandiganbayan might just withdraw its permission. I kid thee not. After all, the original justification for letting Erap out of jail to rush to the United States was that getting surgery in the US (the Standford University) hospital, in particular) was urgently required to save his knees and his spine, since the latter was being seriously affected by his worsening medical condition.

Now the Sandiganbayan justices who generously gave Erap permission to go may be increasingly embarrassed by the lack of urgency being demonstrated by the object of their compassion, ex-President Estrada himself. Is it true that Erap has been saying he wants to stay here a bit longer so he can help his friend, FPJ, win the election? I hope that mischief-mongers arenít misquoting Erap, because if these stupid words are being uttered, then Erap isnít helping Panday at all, but merely making him look like a stooge.

Enough na. Please go, Erap if you can. No US visa? I think the United States Consul General should clarify this once and for all. All the pious statements issued by the Estrada camp may be just propaganda. But if not, itís up to the US Ė if the ex-President has already applied Ė to say, quite plainly: "Yes" or "No".

Politics and medical "emergency" must not get mixed up. But in this benighted country, everything seems tainted by politics these days.

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What dismays me most is that nobody seems to believe in palabra de honor, word of honor, or the importance of redeeming a pledge or a promise any more. Lying has become commonplace, and sinverguenza (shamelessness) has become as prevalent as sin.

"Loyalty" as a concept has become a joke. Look at the sad case of former Lakas spokesman, ex-Senator and ex-DENR Secretary Heherson "Sonny" Alvarez. After "loyally" defending GMA and speaking out for Lakas, poor Sonny was unceremoniously junked from the ruling partyís Senatorial ticket, and the place he thought reserved for him awarded to the "defecting" ex-Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

Sonny, though, behaved no better. As soon as he was dumped, Alvarez began attacking GMA and the Administration. If itís Monday, youíre for the government. On Thursday, youíre anti-government. And vice-versa. Thatís how farcical and selfish things have become.

Can we endure as a Republic? We may not even have, still, become a Republic. Just a collection of mercenaries, out for themselves. Or soldiers of fortune, out to seek their own fortunes. Why, those old TRAPOS who already made fortunes in past Administrations want another "go" at making bigger fortunes. We have a case, in the Senate race for instance, of the Fraudsters of the Past pitting themselves against the Fraudsters of the Present.

Can the Philippines survive? Of course, we can. But with great effort Ė and cheerful determination. Our only saving grace is that we are cheerful, even in adversity.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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