Amari can’t recover P1.7-B ‘bribe money’

- Aurea Calica () - November 13, 2003 - 12:00am
Writing finis to what was once called the "grandmother of all scams," the Supreme Court has ruled that Amari Coastal Bay Development Corp. cannot recover some P1.754 billion it paid to "bribe" various persons to secure a Manila Bay reclamation project in 1995.

In denying the second motion for reconsideration filed by Amari and the Public Estates Authority (PEA), the high tribunal said the appellants could not seek protection for a private entity’s investments because anomalies were unearthed in the deal.

"The private entity that purchased the reclaimed land for P1.894 billion expressly admitted before the Senate committees that it spent P1.754 billion in commissions and services in successfully negotiating and securing the contract," the court said in a 24-page ruling penned by Justice Antonio Carpio.

"By any legal or moral yardstick, the P1.754 billion in commissions obviously constitutes bribe money," the court said.

The high tribunal said it could not establish a new doctrine by elevating bribe money to the status of legitimate investments deserving protection of the law.

"Should this Court reward the patently illegal and grossly unethical business practice of the private entity in securing the contract? Should we allow those with hands dripping with dirty money equitable relief from this Court?" the ruling asked.

Aside from violating constitutional provisions expressly prohibiting the sale of public lands, the high court noted the property was undervalued based on official documents submitted by the proper government agencies during the Senate investigation.

The court said that the purchase price of P1,200 per square meter, or a total of P1.894 billion, for the 157.84 hectares of public lands was "grossly and unconscionably undervalued."

"The authoritative appraisal, of course, is that of the Commission on Audit, which valued the 157.84 hectares at P21,333.07 per square meter or a total of P22.673 billion," the ruling said.

The court noted that if Amari could spend P1.754 billion for consultants and other services, it knew very well that the value of the property was much higher than PEA’s assessment.

Even if the high court overlooks the undervaluation or the bribery, the constitutional violations are the major flaws in the joint venture agreement.

In a 7-7-1 vote, the SC junked the second motions for reconsideration for failure to gain a majority to overturn the court’s decision on May 6 as null and void because it was unconstitutional ab initio (from the beginning).

The high tribunal also prohibited the two appellants from filing further pleadings in connection with the case.

"It is now time to write finis to this grandmother of all scams," the court said.

PEA, the government agency in charge of public lands, entered into a joint venture deal with Amari in April 1995. Under the agreement, the Italian-Thai firm would develop and eventually gain title to 77.34 hectares of still submerged areas at Manila Bay.

But in November of the same year, former Senate president Ernesto Maceda delivered a privilege speech claiming that the contract involved a P50-billion anomaly and thus, called it the "grandmother of all scams."

Two Senate committees concluded in September 1997 that the deal was illegal and that the reclaimed lands cannot be transferred to Amari because these lands are public domain.

In December 1997, former President Fidel Ramos issued Presidential Administrative Order 365 creating a legal task force that would re-examine the contract.

In April 1998, however, then President Joseph Estrada ordered a renegotiation of the deal through a panel headed by then PEA chairman Arsenio Yulo, PEA director Nestor Kalaw and retired Navy officer Sergio Cruz.

Lawyer Antonio Zulueta filed a taxpayer’s suit before the SC seeking to nullify the renegotiation but this was dismissed by the court because Zulueta failed to observe the hierarchy of the court and filed his suit directly with the SC.

Former Solicitor General Frank Chavez then filed a suit, arguing that the incident constitutional issues involved the civil right to information on a matter where the government stands to lose billions of pesos.

Despite the lawsuits, PEA and Amari signed in March 1999 the amended deal and Estrada approved the sale on May 28 of the same year.

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