November 11, 2000, The Philippine Star, Lawyers shocked by Estrada's admission,
Lawyers of President Estrada were "shocked" by his revelation that millions of pesos in bribes were deposited in an account controlled by his aide, Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora said yesterday. Mr. Estrada told the nation about the bank account on Thursday during successive radio broadcasts, ahead of his looming impeachment for alleged corruption. "Frankly, they were shocked," Zamora said of the panel of lawyers that Mr. Estrada had hired to advise him at the impeachment trial.
Zamora said the legal team, led by retired Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, is now working overtime to contain the damage. Mr. Estrada's lawyers had previously advised the Pre-sident to hold his tongue until it could be determined what the impeachment charges would be.
Zamora said the impeachment complaint at the House of Representatives "would probably be issued by Monday." "Some of us met yesterday to determine the implications of the statements of the President," Zamora told radio station dzMM. He said the bank account held between "P220 million and P250 million" as of Thursday.
The impeachment case is largely based on allegations by former presidential friend, Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis "Chavit" Singson, that he delivered to Mr. Estrada more than P400 million in payoffs from illegal gambling operators between November 1998 and August 2000.
Under the Constitution, if at least two-thirds of the 22-member Senate find there is a "preponderance of evidence" against Mr. Estrada during a trial, he would be removed from office and face possible criminal prosecution and even imprisonment afterwards.
The month-old political crisis has shaken investor confidence, putting pressure on the peso, interest rates and the stock market. Mr. Estrada's top aides have warned that the economy could slow down unless the crisis is resolved democratically by yearend. In his first detailed response to allegations, Mr. Estrada said Thursday that Singson's aide, Yolanda Ricaforte, delivered the money to lawyer Edward Serapio, the corporate secretary of a charitable foundation set up by the President when he came to power in 1998.
The foundation plans to sponsor fresh Muslim graduates, who would be "the next generation of Muslim leaders," to postgraduate "liberal education" in the West, Zamora said. "The money that Singson gave me is in the bank, intact," Mr. Estrada said. "I have not spent a single centavo." But he insisted that he previously rejected the money when Singson attempted to hand it over in person.
The political opposition swiftly pounced on Mr. Estrada's revelation. Hernani Perez, a spokesman for the Lakas-NUCD party, said it proved that Mr. Estrada and his men resorted to "money laundering just like criminal organizations." At least three opposition senators demanded that the money be brought to the national treasury.
Zamora said Serapio had not advised the President of the existence of the money "until this thing exploded." The lawyer himself was unaware that the account held the purported bribe money because Singson told him that the deposit was a legitimate donation to the charitable foundation, he added.
Zamora said Mr. Estrada's public statement could not be retracted, and his lawyers "will just have to work with that and ensure that it will not harm his case." Mr. Estrada also revealed on Thursday that he had rejected an offer of a "graceful exit" from Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who has led calls for his resignation and who would replace him should he be impeached.
He said Arroyo offered him immunity from prosecution if he quits now. But Mr. Estrada stressed that he was "innocent" and would make a "graceful exit in 2004," at the end of his term. Also yesterday, Mr. Estrada said that the current political turmoil was "temporary." "These are temporary and unfortunate events that we have to deal with in a democratic society," he told foreign correspondents club in Manila, stressing that the charges "stand on shaky ground."
He said he expects to emerge unscathed and "restore the political and economic stability" which he said has been put at risk by rivals who wanted to grab power using means "outside the framework mandated by our Constitution." Asked if resigning would not be the more honorable thing to do, he said the Philippines did not practice a parliamentary form of government, and quitting before his term ends "is against the Constitution."– Marichu Villanueva, AFP