, JANUARY 12, 2007 (STAR) GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc - It’s Mark Jimenez’s word against not just Ping Lacson but also Joseph Estrada on the $14-million IMPSA slush fund. Jimenez says it never existed, except $2 million extorted by Hernando Perez, so "that liar" had better stop talking about it or calling him "friend". Lacson claims that Jimenez confided it in the course of narrating the shakedown, so the latter had better answer for bribery instead. Estrada adds that Jimenez first offered him the loot in behalf of IMPSA, so the Ombudsman had better pin a plunder rap on his successor as President who gave the Argentine firm an unusual sovereign guarantee on loan defaults.

At stake in the exchange is whether Perez alone should be indicted – and only for extortion – when other officials of the then-fledgling Arroyo administration could have partaken of a bigger amount – in plunder.

Jimenez’s version is only extortion. Yet in Dec. 2002 his original raps against Perez were for plunder and obstructing justice in seizing $2 million from him days after Estrada’s ouster in Jan. 2001. Perez, then-justice secretary, supposedly wanted him to rat on Estrada’s kickbacks. But he balked, so Perez asked for a payoff to leave him alone. The money was paid thru Perez’s pal Ernest Escaler, and mixed with the accounts of his wife and brother-in-law.

The Ombudsman took all of four years to investigate Jimenez’s complaint – and come up with a case only of extortion. Opposition leaders cried that it should have been plunder. Not only did the stolen amount exceed P50 million ($2 million in 2001 was P108 million), but a series and combination of illegal acts also were committed to merit the heinous felony. Money laundering was not yet criminalized then, but still the extortion was accompanied by graft and obstructing justice, perhaps even perjury when Perez excluded the $2 million from his mandatory asset statement in 2001. More than all that, no-bail life-term plunder could have made Perez talk. But Jimenez is happy with the extortion, although he says God has first to forgive Perez before he does.

Lacson’s claim of a bigger amount is likely to get nowhere. To begin with, his basis for the story of $14-million bribery on top of $2-million extortion depends on what his source is willing to tell. And that source – Jimenez – is not about to incriminate himself on mere cajoling of ex-police general Lacson. Jimenez inadvertently hinted at other possible means of truth extraction, however, when he accused Lacson of lying as in the Dacer-Corbito kidnappings, Kuratong Baleleng murders, and US secret deposits.

Estrada has a better account, because first-hand, that Jimenez first offered him the $14 million in 1999 "for projects of the President". There’s a big question for Estrada, though. If the bribe offer is true, then how come he, as highest official of the land sworn to uphold the law, did not turn in Jimenez. Why, not only did Estrada keep mum about bribery in the highest office, but also went on to call Jimenez a "financial genius". That was for the latter’s packaging in Malacañang of the P31-billion buyout of PLDT by First Pacific, and the P30-billion merger of PCIBank with Equitable Bank. Jimenez had stated in an affidavit that Estrada received P126 million in advance commissions from the Equitable-PCIBank deal.

His failure to act against crime notwithstanding, Estrada now offers two witnesses to the $14-million bribery – none other than his justice and finance secretaries when he fell from power, Artemio Tuquero and Jose Pardo. The two, he says, would know who partook of Jimenez’s handout of $14 million to Perez, and how. Whether the two would talk, if they know anything at all, is anybody’s guess, though.

Estrada’s failure to act against crime in the making is matched by Lacson. The latter claims that Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez deliberately had delayed the Ombudsman probe by withholding vital documents. Yet such act had been disclosed to the Commission on Appointments as far as two years back, and Lacson never charged Gonzalez then with impeding justice.

One thing sure, this $2-million extortion case can never be reported without the $14 million slush fund. Murmurs about the money had been going around since the last days of Estrada’s tenure and went on into the Arroyo takeover. Since there’s likely to be fire where there’s smoke, many more stories expectedly will break about it.

And since the stink is out, perhaps the Ombudsman can investigate a related case once and for all. Why did Perez, also in early 2001, let Estrada’s point men at the SSS and GSIS off the hook when they apparently were in on the BW stock market scam?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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