Ping on US dollar accounts: Whatever you find is yours

- Jess Diaz -
Opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson dared his political opponents yesterday to find — and claim — the money stashed away in his alleged bank accounts in the United States.

"They can have those bank accounts, if they exist," he said.

Businesswoman Blanquita Pelaez had filed a complaint in California in December 2001 against Lacson after a 1996 handcuff supply contract with the Philippine National Police (PNP) failed to push through.

In her pleadings before the lower court, Pelaez had presented documents detailing bank accounts under the names of Lacson and his wife Alice de Piero Lacson. 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 PNP.

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

Lacson said he refused to pay more than P20 million in taxes and duties for the handcuffs "because the original contract called for her to pay taxes and duties." He said the contract was signed by former PNP chief Director General Recaredo Sarmiento and revised during the time of Sarmiento’s successor Roberto Lastimoso. Pelaez tried to collect during Lacson’s watch.

"I had to insist on the original contract since the amended one was disadvantageous to the government and taxpayers," Lacson said. "I still think I made the right decision."

Lacson’s lawyer Siegfried Fortun said that Richman’s decision would not lead to a search for Lacson’s alleged fortune in the US.

"No, that is not the case. The judge set aside the monetary award to Pelaez after ruling that the court has jurisdiction over Senator Lacson," he said. "She has not proven that she deserves any award." Asked if there would still be a trial, Fortun said the trial was already completed. He explained that Richman resolved two issues in the case: whether Pelaez is entitled to damages and whether the lower court has jurisdiction over Lacson, who was declared in default because he did not appear in court.

"The next step now is for us to appeal Judge Richman’s ruling, the default portion, because we were not properly served court processes. We certainly won’t appeal the part scrapping the $3 million award. We welcome that," Fortun said. Adding to Lacson’s woes, the senator’s US-based lawyers, the Cardoza Law Offices in San Francisco, California will not be able to continue representing him unless he pays the accumulated legal fees, according to a report aired over ABS-CBN’s "TV Patrol."

The lower court had awarded Pelaez $3 million plus interest although she admitted having lost only about $31,262 in the handcuff deal. Richman, reversing the court’s decision, 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.

Richman also declared the award as void because Pelaez failed to present evidence of Lacson’s financial condition and ability to pay. He 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.

House Deputy Speaker Raul Gonzalez said yesterday Lacson’s "lies and illegal activities" are finally catching up with him.

Gonzalez said that the California Superior Court’s decision only proved that Lacson was lying when he claimed he has no bank accounts in the US. "So who’s telling the truth now?" he told The STAR. "Lacson dared everybody before that if any bank account would be found abroad, he would give it up to its finder."

House Minority Leader Carlos Padilla, however, said this development is part of "Malacañang getting back at" Lacson because of his privilege speech alleging that First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo is involved in money-laundering activities.

"Anyway, this is still a long process. The more that they rub it against him, the more he’ll get sympathy from the people," he said.

Lawyer Patricia Bunye-Roxas, Mr. Arroyo’s spokeswoman, said that in the light of the US superior court’s ruling, Lacson should be the last person to accuse people of having secret bank accounts. "Lacson should not be too quick to hurl accusations against the First Gentleman when he himself has not sufficiently explained the existence of bank accounts and assets in his name overseas," she said.

Roxas also denied accusations that Pelaez was getting help from Mr. Arroyo, himself a lawyer, who frequently flies to California.

"No truth to that. Lacson’s troubles, legal or otherwise, are his own doing," she said.
Another Use For Evidence
Government lawyers said yesterday that the evidence submitted by Pelaez against Lacson might be used to back up allegations of unexplained wealth and involvement in money laundering hurled against Lacson in 2001.

Lacson was accused of accumulating unexplained wealth and laundering money by former Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus and his witnesses, former police agent Mary "Rosebud" Ong and Angelo Mawanay, who claimed to be an informer for the defunct Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, which the senator used to head.

The lawyers, who asked not to be identified, said the accounts mentioned by Pelaez could be compared with the senator’s statements of assets and liabilities and whether he misused public funds in the transaction involving the handcuffs. However, justice and foreign affairs officials said the government cannot intervene in a private case filed against a Philippine government official abroad.

Justice Undersecretary Merceditas Gutierrez and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Franklin Ebdalin both said they could see nothing in the California Superior Court’s decision that would compel the government to take action.

Gutierrez said that prosecuting agencies of the government would not have any jurisdiction over the charges filed by private complainant abroad despite his position as a government official.

Ebdalin said that the only problem he could see for the senator is his lack of immunity from arrest and detention abroad. Lacson may enjoy immunity here only if his case is punishable with not more than six years in prison.

"It’s just a civil case. They are only talking of damages. The senator has to face it because our laws will not apply there. He’s like an ordinary citizen there," Ebdalin said. With Paolo Romero, Aurea Calica, Marichu Villanueva, Jose Rodel Clapano

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