Equitable VP: Estrada signed as Jose Velarde

- Jose Rodel Clapano -
A government star witness in Joseph Estrada’s corruption trial testified yesterday that the ousted president signed the name "Jose Velarde" in bank documents, an alias he used to maintain a secret account.

"He affixed his signature in the name of Jose Velarde," Manuel Curato testified at yesterday’s hearing at the Sandiganbayan on the charges of plunder and illegal use of an alias against Estrada.

Curato, head of legal services at Equitable PCIBank, said he and another bank officer, Clarissa Ocampo, had taken bank documents to Malacañang on Feb. 4, 2000, to get Estrada’s permission to invest part of the deposits in another account.

Prosecutors allege that Estrada used the Velarde account to launder illegal gambling kickbacks, embezzled state funds and profits from insider trading at the stock exchange. They say the account contained P3.2 billion at one point.

The Curato testimony is a repeat of his statements at Estrada’s impeachment trial at the Senate last year.

During the trial, the Senate had refused to accept evidence on the Jose Velarde account, sparking the popular uprising that ousted Estrada.

Curato said Estrada signed the name "Jose Velarde" at least 15 times on at least six different bank documents at the Malacañang Guest House "not as a guarantor, but the principal lender."

"I saw the President affix his signatures in the documents. I was just a seat away from the principal accused, in this case, Estrada. He affixed his signature in the name Jose Velarde on the three investment management agreement. At the time he signed them, there were no typewritten words Jose Velarde," Curato told the Sandiganbayan special division, tasked with hearing Estrada’s corruption case.

Curato said he first thought that Estrada had signed "J. Estrada" and then immediately realized that it read Jose Velarde.

"The signatures affixed by the principal accused, Estrada, appeared above the printed words ‘the principal by.’ The only typewritten name that appeared in the investment management agreement was Ocampo’s name. At the time we prepared the documents, we did not know that the principal was Estrada," Curato said.

Curato said he was seated beside Ocampo, who was seated beside Estrada. Estrada simply nodded several times as Ocampo explained the documents, which Estrada signed in about five to 10 minutes without saying a word.

"I was seated a seat away from the President, while Ocampo was a foot away from the President," Curato said.

Aside from Ocampo and himself, Curato said Estrada signed the documents in the presence then presidential chief of staff Aprodicio Laquian and Estrada’s lawyer, Fernando Chua.

Curato said the documents were requirements for a loan being secured by Estrada’s friend, businessman William Gatchalian, and the bank was facilitating the loan.

Gatchalian put up 450 million shares of stock in Waterfront Philippines as collateral, Curato said.

According to Curato, Chua approached him on Feb. 3, 2000, saying that Gatchalian wanted to borrow money from his client – who turned out to be Estrada – and that his client wanted Equitable-PCIBank to act as an intermediary.

The following day, after Gatchalian had signed the loan documents, Curato and Ocampo brought the documents to Malacañang for signing.

Chua asked them to wait and told them to bring out only the most necessary documents for signature – which Ocampo did – because his client didn’t like signing too many documents.

"The first to arrive was Lacquian. While Lacquian was talking, I saw the President walking to approach us. We then approached the President and Chua introduced us to him. He shook our hands and we took our seats," Curato said.

"I did not ask the President why he used Jose Velarde instead of his true name, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, because he can sign in numbers or in letters for confidentiality," he said.

If that was the case, Estrada lawyer Prospero Crescini said the deposed president did not necessarily commit anything illegal.

"There is one very important thing here. The use of letters and numbers in signing documents is allowed in bank deposits. It is authorized and permissible. It was not publicly used," Crescini said.

"The mere fact that it was deposited does not necessarily mean that we admit that Estrada is Jose Velarde. Somebody may deposit an account under any person. It is an admission that he is Jose Velarde."
Estrada supporters warned
Meanwhile, Crescini has asked the Sandiganbayan to allow Estrada’s son and co-accused, Jinggoy Estrada, to post bail on the plunder charge.

He argued that the Supreme Court had already ruled that the former San Juan mayor can be held liable in only one element of the plunder charge against him. Prosecutors accuse him of receiving kickbacks from illegal gambling operators.

Estrada enters his second year in detention next week on trial for corruption and plunder, among other charges.

A bloodless military-backed popular protest booted him out of office on January 20, 2001, and he was arrested on April 25 of that year.

President Arroyo yesterday warned Estrada supporters against stirring up trouble at protests planned to mark the first anniversary of Estrada’s arrest.

Estrada supporters are planning street protests on Friday, his 65th birthday, as well as on May 1, a year after rioting by Estrada supporters around Malacañang claimed four lives.
Liable for contempt
Estrada had repeatedly refused to recognize the legality of his trial, saying he expects no acquittal as long as Mrs. Arroyo remains president.

He had also questioned the partiality of the Supreme Court, accusing the tribunal of succumbing to pressure from Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, one of his most outspoken critics.

Estrada claimed that the Supreme Court justices sought Sin’s advice before making a vote on the legality of the anti-plunder law, which the disgraced leader is accused of violating.

Yesterday, Manila Auxilliary Bishop Socrates Villegas, Sin’s spokesman, denied Estrada’s allegations. He said the Catholic Church does not meddle in the high tribunal’s affairs and respects the separation of Church and State.

"It’s about time to correct the statements of Mr. Estrada against the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court and its members, because lies, when repeated over and over, may begin to sound like the truth," Villegas said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a civic organization has petitioned the Sandiganbayan to cite Estrada, his son Jinggoy Estrada, former first lady and Sen. Luisa Ejercito and two former Estrada lawyers for contempt for repeated criticisms on the judiciary. With reports from Mayen Jaymalin, Sandy Araneta











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