November 14, 2000, The Philippine Star, Estrada knew about millions -- Serapio, by Perseus Echeminada,
President Estrada, facing impeachment for alleged corruption, knew as early as August that gambling bosses funneled millions of pesos into the bank account of a charitable foundation for Muslim youths, his lawyer Edward Serapio told a Senate inquiry yesterday.
Serapio's testimony appeared to contradict Mr. Estrada's public statements last week that he only learned about the suspected bribes last month when Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis "Chavit" Singson went public. The opposition has accused Mr. Estrada of laundering P200 million from jueteng operators through the banking system. The charge is part of an impeachment case against Mr. Estrada.
Serapio, Mr. Estrada's personal lawyer at the time the donations were made and who remains corporate secretary of the foundation, said Mr. Estrada "took me to task" when he learned the money had come from Singson. "The President was angry, he was disappointed," Serapio told the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee which is investigating the alleged gambling payoffs.
"I just apologized and explained to him that I never even suspected" the funds were actually jueteng payoffs, he said. Singson turned against Mr. Estrada last month, accusing him of setting up a system to collect jueteng kickbacks for himself and receiving P414 million from gambling bosses between November 1998 and August 2000.
Singson alleged that Serapio had laundered nearly half the bribes through the banking system while Singson himself personally delivered the balance in bags of cash to Mr. Estrada every 15 days. Serapio said Yolanda Ricaforte, who is Singson's aide, delivered six managers' checks on April 13 and 14, a few days before Mr. Estrada's 63rd birthday, with instructions to place them in an "interim account" before they were to be "transferred to the foundation account on a staggered basis."
Outgoing Blue Ribbon Committee chairman Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. told reporters that Mr. Estrada's emerging defense strategy appears to revolve on the premise that "the actions of the President and the actions of the foundation are two different things." Serapio testified that the President told him "in late August" that the donation was "likely to have come from jueteng."
Mr. Estrada "urged us to return the money to Governor Singson," he added. Serapio said three of the trustees of the foundation later met informally and resolved "not to touch the money" which he said "should be subject to confiscation and forfeiture by the State and should not be returned to Governor Singson."
However, the trustees made no effort to verify the source of the funds and Serapio did not advise Mr. Estrada that he could be held liable for bribery even if he did not directly get the money. "We did not discuss provisions on bribery, whether direct or indirect," he said. He said Mr. Estrada's "commitment to developing a new generation of leaders" from the Muslim minority was the "inspiration" for the charity, which plans to award postgraduate scholarships abroad to Muslim college graduates.
Mr. Estrada's brother-in-law, retired UP chancellor Raul de Guzman, organized the charity in January and remains its chairman, Serapio said. He said he informed Mr. Estrada of the donation in August after the trustees decided to "offer to the President to accept the position of chairman emeritus."
Meanwhile, the President clarified that the charitable group for Muslim youths is not in any way his own foundation. "This is a Muslim youth foundation and it's a legitimate foundation and that is not mine," he told CNN's Asia news edition. He added that the P200-million money deposited in an account of this group was placed there "without my knowledge."
In a separate interview by CNBC-Asia, Mr. Estrada said his conscience is clear that he never received a single centavo from jueteng. In a related development, a group of lawyers accused anti-Estrada senators of "browbeating" Serapio. Lawyer Rey Bagatsing, head of the Philippine Anti- Graft Crusaders Inc., said these senators "bamboozled Serapio… to muddle the facts in connection with the jueteng scandal."
He identified these senators as Renato Cayetano, Loren Legarda, Raul Roco and Senate Minority Leader Teofisto Guingona Jr. Bagatsing said these senators tried to mix up the facts because Serapio's testimony corroborated Mr. Estrada's position that he was not aware of the P200-million donation to the foundation.
"These opposition senators were not concerned with ferrying out the truth in this case," he said. "They were engaged in bullying tactics to harass and confuse Serapio and mix up the facts." The group also accused Mr. Estrada's political enemies of forum shopping when they bared plans of filing a criminal complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman.
Bagatsing said that by bringing the jueteng case there, proponents of the impeachment complaint have virtually admitted that their case is weak and will likely be routed in the Senate trial. He told the united opposition to review the law because they very well know that any President is immune from suits during his or her incumbency.
If this case prospers at the Ombudsman, he said this will set a "dangerous precedent" because future presidents will be vulnerable to nuisance cases during their respective incumbencies. The Penal Code prescribes prison terms for public officials found guilty of taking bribes except the President, who cannot be sued while in office. But his removal from office would leave him exposed to possible criminal prosecution afterwards.
In other developments yesterday, a group of Muslim students asked Mr. Estrada not to use them as "scapegoats to cover your greediness in soliciting dirty money from jueteng lords." Amirah Ali Lidasan, spokesperson for the Moro Christian People's Alliance (MCPA), also challenged the Chief Executive to produce a Muslim student who is a beneficiary of the foundation. — With reports from Marichu Villanueva, Sandy Araneta, AFP