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Abolish the PCGG

After more than two decades of sequestration, the case of alleged coco levy funds invested in San Miguel Corp. (SMC) has come full circle. And so with the several other sequestered assets of former associates of the late dictator, ex-President Ferdinand Marcos, collectively known as “cronies.”

The latest setback in efforts to recover this alleged ill-gotten wealth came with the Supreme Court (SC) ruling that affirmed with finality that the block of shares of businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco in SMC was legally acquired. The SMC assets of Cojuangco, who served as a Marcos ambassador, were sequestered shortly after the February 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution when the dictator was ousted from office.

One of the first acts in office by then President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino after taking over the government from Marcos was to recover the alleged ill-gotten wealth of the late dictator and his cronies. To this end, Mrs. Aquino created the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) under Executive Order 1 which she issued using her “revolutionary powers” while the country’s Constitution was then still being drafted (it was later ratified in February 1987).

A first cousin of Mrs. Aquino, Cojuangco was among the Marcos cronies whose personal properties, business ownership and other companies were taken over and sequestered by the PCGG. The cousins were not exactly on good terms as the history of enmity between the Cojuangco family and the Aquinos unfolded following the assassination of the ex-President’s husband, the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.

Although Cojuangco fled abroad when the Marcos regime was toppled, his loyal subordinates at the SMC headed by Ramon Ang waged the legal battles here to ward off new predators that came one after the other with each change of administration after Mrs. Aquino. Fondly called “Boss Danding” by his subordinates, he was thus able to preserve his business interests and personal wealth by the time he returned to the country in 1991.

Cojuangco founded his own political machinery, the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), and ran in the May 1992 presidential elections against the likes of Marcos’ widow, former First Lady Imelda Marcos. However, both lost to Mrs. Aquino’s “anointed” presidential candidate, former Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos. Philippine political pundits believed the Marcoses could have regained power had Cojuangco not run and divided the votes of the “loyalists.”

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That was Cojuangco’s last run in politics and he focused instead on his businesses and took charge of running the SMC.

Last April 12, the SC affirmed the lifting of the writ of sequestration over the Cojuangco block of shares in SMC, declaring it his legitimately acquired wealth. With 13 justices voting in last Tuesday’s en banc session, the SC dismissed the motions for reconsideration filed by the PCGG and a multi-sectoral group led by former Senators Jovito Salonga and Wigberto Tañada, seeking a reversal of the court’s April 12 decision. 

The petitioners argued that Cojuangco “judicially admitted” that he acquired the San Miguel block of shares using proceeds of loans from the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) and credit advances from the Coconut Industry Investment Funds (CIIF) Oil Mills, both of which were the repositories of coco levy funds.

The levy fund constituted taxes paid for by coconut farmers for the copra they sold from August 1973 to 1982. Cojuangco was director of the CIIF Oil Mills and the Philippine Coconut Authority, and chairman of UCPB at the time the San Miguel shares were purchased. The PCGG accused Cojuangco of having used his positions in these entities and breaching fiduciary duties for his personal gain.

The SC, however, noted that the petitioners failed to present new arguments that would warrant the reversal of the April 12 decision. In their final ruling, the SC justices said they would no longer entertain further pleadings on this case as they ordered the PCGG to immediately comply.

Even while the SMC has been under PCGG sequestration, Cojuangco has regained control of it since his return to the country. He has, in fact, steered the country’s biggest brewery to expand to other businesses to become one of the largest food and beverage conglomerates in the Philippines. Hence, the SC ruling was just a formality of Cojuangco’s getting back the crown jewel of his wealth.

It was actually a unanimous ruling because there are two vacancies right now in the High Tribunal.

By a seeming twist of fate, the final ruling of the SC on Cojuangco’s case was handed down with President Noynoy Aquino, the only son of the late President Aquino, now at the helm of government. The official word from Malacañang Palace has it that P-Noy would not want to make any comment on the SC ruling on Cojuangco’s case. The Palace tossed the matter to the Office of the Solicitor General as counsel of the PCGG. Understandably so.

P-Noy’s keeping a safe distance from the SC ruling on the Cojuangco case is the least he could do in the situation. After all, his Uncle Danding and the latter’s wife Gretchen made public their support for him over another nephew, former Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, during the May 10 presidential campaign. And as we say, the rest is history.

But history has a queer way of coming back to haunt us. This we saw in what was billed as the “powerhouse” gathering last Sunday at the renewal of wedding vows of Sen. Miriam Defensor and her husband, Narciso Santiago Jr. With P-Noy as the best man, Sen. Santiago was able to bring together in her “powerhouse” wedding entourage Cojuangco and former First Lady, now Leyte Congresswoman Marcos, among others. Did we hear the singing of “Happy days are here again!”?   

After spending so much effort, time, and money to prosecute these cases in an attempt to recover ill-gotten wealth, the final ruling on the coco levy issue is the best argument for P-Noy to end all this wastage.

Only lawyers, fiscal agents and nominees of the PCGG have enriched themselves in these sequestered companies. Incumbent PCCG Chairman Andy Bautista is right on track when he earlier recommended to P-Noy that it’s now the right time to abolish the PCGG.

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