US court confirms Ping’s dollar account

Offense may be the best defense, but while Sen. Panfilo Lacson has yet to hale First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo to court for alleged money laundering, his own legal troubles from across the ocean have once again come calling.

Rejecting Lacson’s argument that he is not under the jurisdiction of US courts, the Superior Court of California refused to junk a civil lawsuit that involves multimillion-dollar bank accounts the declared presidential candidate allegedly owns in the United States.

In a ruling dated Aug. 19, California Superior Court Judge James Richman refused to set aside the default a lower court entered against Lacson in a lawsuit involving a 1996 handcuff supply contract for the Philippine National Police (PNP).

At the same time, however, Richman set aside the default judgment amounting to $3 million which the lower court awarded businesswoman Blanquita Pelaez after Lacson’s failure to appear before the US court.

Reached by The STAR, Lacson refused to comment on the ruling, saying his US lawyers, the Cardoza Law Offices in San Francisco, California, had not yet received a copy of Richman’s decision.

The ruling means that while Lacson will not have to immediately pay Pelaez the entire $3-million award, he remains in default and is only waiting for a ruling on how much he would have to pay in the future.

While the ruling may be interpreted as a respite for Lacson — who has declared his plans to run in next year’s presidential election — it also has serious political fallout stemming from bank accounts he allegedly maintains in the United States.

Lacson has challenged his political opponents to search thoroughly for his alleged unexplained wealth. They can keep whatever they find, he said.

"Maghanap sila at lahat nang makita nila ay sa kanila na (They should search and they can have everything they find)," Lacson said.

The case stems from the complaint Pelaez filed in California on Dec. 14, 2001 after the handcuff contract failed to push through.

In his 26-page ruling, Richman said there was "no basis on which to set aside the default itself." But he noted several procedural defects in Pelaez’s pleadings and declared "unconstitutional" the $3 million in damages an inferior court awarded her last Jan. 10.

"The extrinsic mistake claimed by (Lacson) is his reliance on the incorrect advice of his Philippines-based counsel, who advised (him) that this court would dismiss (Pelaez’s) complaint for lack of jurisdiction without (Lacson) having to make an appearance. The law is otherwise," Richman said.

Richman also said that Lacson’s appeal was "untimely" since Lacson did not file a motion for relief until last Feb. 7, or eight months after the court entered the default against him on June 11, 2002.

Nonetheless, Richman declared the $3 million award "unconstitutional" following the State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. vs Campbell decision the US Supreme Court handed down only last April 7.

In State Farm, the US high court deemed unconstitutional a court ruling awarding $145 million in punitive damages when the compensatory damages amounted to only $1 million.

In the Pelaez versus Lacson case, the lower court awarded Pelaez $3,031,262 plus interest although she admitted having lost only about $31,262 in the handcuff deal.

Following guidelines laid out in the decision, Richman also ruled that Pelaez failed to prove that she suffered emotional distress.

Pelaez did not include in her suit a "statement of damages" and because the default judgment awarded her damages not specified in her original complaint.

The US court also declared the $3 million as void because Pelaez failed to present evidence of Lacson’s financial condition and ability to pay.

Richman said Pelaez did try to submit evidence of Lacson’s cash and real properties in the US but the superior court refused to consider what it described as ex post facto evidence.
Political Fallout
But while Lacson may have dodged legal prosecution in the US, the evidence will likely have extensive local political fallout, especially so soon after Lacson himself accused President Arroyo’s husband of money laundering.

In her pleadings, Pelaez included documents showing that Lacson, when he was chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) remitted in five tranches, from Nov. 13 to Dec. 26, 2000 — or at the height of the Estrada impeachment trial — a total $444,299 to the US bank account of his wife Alice de Piero Lacson.

Pelaez also submitted documents purporting that Lacson’s wife had an account at the California branch of the Bank of American totaling $456,000. Mrs. Lacson supposedly used funds from this account to purchase Toyota Sequoia SUVs for $50,000 each in December 2000.

The documents also showed that Lacson himself allegedly opened several bank accounts in his own name at the Bank of American branch in Chula Vista, California, which in October had a balance of $285,133.

Pelaez also claimed that Lacson’s assets are allegedly in a firm called Orient Light Freight International Inc. LLC in Panorama City, California which was set up by Mrs. Lacson in March 2001 with a certain Rosalinda Tiu and Robert Co.

The documents showed that Mrs. Lacson supposedly remitted from her bank accounts in March 2001 a total of $150,000 to Orient Light’s Wells Fargo account in Portland, Oregon. As of April 2001, the company supposedly had an account balance of $200,000. — With reports from Jess Diaz











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