‘Estrada offered to have Atong killed’

- Jose Rodel Clapano -
Former Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis "Chavit" Singson testified yesterday that ousted President Joseph Estrada tried to buy his silence with a promise to liquidate gambling consultant Charlie "Atong" Ang.

Resuming his direct testimony at the continuation of Estrada’s trial for plunder, Singson said the bribe offer was relayed to him by then Interior and Local Government Secretary Alfredo Lim.

Singson, once a gambling partner and one of the closest friends of Estrada, blew the whistle on the fallen leader’s alleged deep involvement in jueteng operations, an illegal numbers game popular nationwide.

Singson said Lim approached him thrice in a bid to dissuade him from pushing through his press conference where he charged that Estrada had been receiving millions of pesos in bribes from jueteng operators.

The plunder case filed by state prosecutors against Estrada stemmed from allegations that he amassed over P4 billion in jueteng bribes and other shady deals during his 31 months at Malacañang.

Singson told the Sandiganbayan special division chaired by Justice Minita Nazario that apart from Lim, two other individuals close to Estrada tried to talk him out of his plan to expose the former president’s irregularities.

He identified them as controversial businessman now Manila Rep. Mark Jimenez and former Executive Secretary now opposition Sen. Edgardo Angara.

Singson said the wave of emissaries invariably pleaded with him to iron out his differences with Estrada, with Jimenez even conveying to him a presidential offer of a Palace post in exchange for his silence.

"But in the meantime, I have to lie low and he (Jimenez) told me that the operation of the Bingo 2-ball in Ilocos Sur will continue because stopping its operations would affect its entire operation," Singson narrated.

"I thanked Mark Jimenez, but I told him that it’s not needed anymore because I already informed the 22 mayors of Ilocos Sur and I was already determined to reveal what I know about former President Estrada’s anomalies," Singson added.

He indicated that there was an attempt on his life following the failed negotiations.

He said his Oct. 3 meeting with the mayors at the Manila Hotel ended shortly before midnight, after which he decided to go home in Blue Ridge, Quezon City.

Singson recalled that heavily armed civilians and elements of the elite Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) aboard a convoy of government and private cars and a motorcycle tailed his bullet-proof van and caught up with him on San Marcelino street in Ermita.

"Coincidentally, I was talking with the mayors over the radio and I told them to follow me at San Marcelino street because we were blocked by the PAOCTF members. I told my driver not to open the door of my car while the PAOCTF members outside were asking me to come out. I did not come out," Singson said.

Several minutes later, the 22 mayors arrived at the scene and he felt it was already safe to step out of his vehicle and confront the lawmen.

Initially, the task force agents were at a loss on their reason for accosting him, but after consulting with one another, somebody told him he was under suspicion for using a blinker.

Singson said he admitted having a blinker, but added that he was not using it at the time.

When the lawmen argued that mere possession of a blinker was already a violation of the law, he challenged them to give him a traffic citation ticket and arrest those selling blinkers.

The police agents insisted on taking him to Camp Crame, but Singson said he persuaded them to take him instead to the nearest police station on United Nations Avenue in Ermita.

At the police station, several reporters were already on hand and an impromptu press conference took place.

"I told the mediamen that former President Estrada was harassing me because I was about to reveal his anomalies," Singson said.

He said his exposé eventually caught like wildfire, and reversed the situation between him and Estrada who vainly tried to win back his friendship.

First to call Singson was Estrada’s son Joseph Victor (JV), followed by then San Juan Mayor Jinggoy Estrada.

The former governor said the Estradas were calling him up almost every minute, until he relented and obliged to return their call.

Ang allegedly called Singson up at least 20 times, asking him to reconcile with the president.

Singson said he invariably told all his callers that he had reached a point of no return, even as he raised the issue of the P130 million in tobacco excise tax kickback which he allegedly delivered to Estrada.

The witness also recounted that on the night of Oct. 8, he sought an audience with Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin who gave him spiritual guidance for his plan to tell all on Estrada.

He said he left all vital pieces of evidence with the prelate, adding that whatever happened to him, there is a specific suspect.

Jinggoy allegedly made a last-ditch diplomacy to persuade him to cancel his press conference, but Singson asserted that he had already made up his mind.

The press conference eventually took place at 9 a.m. at the historic Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan, a stone’s throw away from Estrada’s mansion on Polk street.

The exposé triggered a failed impeachment trial that spawned a popular revolt which toppled the Estrada administration in January last year.

In his testimony, Singson also said Estrada owned 70 percent of Fontainbleau, created as a holding company for a casino which the former leader wanted to put up at Clark Field in Pampanga using jueteng money.

Singson said Estrada tapped his friends identified as Susing Pineda and Jaime Dichaves as dummies representing his 70 percent share.

Singson also admitted that he held 25 percent of Fontainbleau while the remaining five percent was owned by Butch Tenorio, a former official of the state-run Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.

He said Estrada directed them not to put his name on the articles of incorporation although he owned majority shares of the company.

During the same hearing, lawyers of one of Estrada’s co-accused in the plunder case insisted that the P200 million seed money for the so-called Erap Muslim Youth Foundation remained intact in the Equitable PCI Bank.

Lawyers Sabino Acut and Martin Pison, legal counsel of Edward Serapio, himself a lawyer and erstwhile legal adviser of Estrada, argued that since the funds have not been touched, their client should have been written off as one of the accused in the plunder case.

Singson said Yolanda Ricaforte, Estrada’s personal accountant, turned over the P200 million in jueteng bribes to Serapio in August 1999.

In another development, a private complainant in the plunder case was fined P20,000 by the Supreme Court for indirect contempt.

In an eight-page ruling penned by Justice Santiago Kapunan, the tribunal castigated lawyer Leonard de Vera for giving press statements "aimed at undermining the Court’s integrity and authority, and interfering with the administration of justice."

News reports quoted De Vera as saying a "P500-million slush fund from the aborted power grab last May 1 may be used by Estrada to coerce or influence the justices" into handing out a decision favorable to the accused.

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