By the time courts decide, it’s history
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc () - September 27, 2006 - 12:00am
Only this week did the Supreme Court finally rule, after 15 years of lawsuits, that a 40-hectare corner of Fort Bonifacio in Taguig City is part of the military reservation and thus should not have been parceled and sold to dozens of now retired generals. Only last week did the Court of Appeals uphold a lower court award of P14 million to the heirs of one of 4,000 or so sea voyagers who drowned in 1987 when M/V Doña Paz sank off Luzon. And it’s likely the ship owner will elevate to the SC too for another 19-year lawsuit. Thousands more cases clog various other courts, either by design or accident, but all seemingly waiting for the litigants to lose interest or die.

Justice in this land grinds so slow that history simply overtakes it.

Long exposed, for instance, is that Ferdinand Marcos amassed illicit wealth during his 14-year martial rule. There were eyewitnesses. Several cronies came clean right after the 1986 EDSA Revolt, surrendering to authorities corporate shares they had kept for Marcos and kin. Some, to elude jail, confessed Marcos’s extortion to the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG). Still, 1,500 cases were left for prosecution. Only in recent months has the Sandiganbayan special anti-graft court begun to hear the proof in the first of those cases.

Writing history tracts can be like trying a court case. History is 50 percent fact and 50 percent interpretation; in court litigants must present convincing evidence to lead the judge to the desired conclusion. As a historian stakes his credibility on research and logical presentation, so must court conviction or acquittal be convincing from legal strategy. The big difference, though, is that historians grapple only with personal deadlines, not with innumerable legal maneuvers that delay case resolution.

One of the many cases snagged by tactics in the Sandigan is that of the ownership of 51 million shares of Equitable-PCI Bank (EPCIB). The case began in 1986, when Equitable had not yet bought PCI. The PCGG had sequestered the shares upon seeing the name Trans Middle East Equities, owned by Marcos’s brother-in-law Kokoy Romualdez. Today worth close to P5 billion, going by a recent Sy family bid to buy out EPCIB stockholders at P90 per share, the block is up for ruling whether cleanly earned by Kokoy or to be turned over to agrarian reform via the PCGG. But at the rate the case is dragging, more history books will be written before any decision.

As far back as 1987 the Lopez industrialist family had intervened, pleading that the shares are in Kokoy’s names only because forcibly taken from them early during martial law. As one of the few living witnesses to the larceny, Jake Almeda Lopez, at age 80, recalls that Eugenio Lopez Sr. and brother Fernando, at one time a country’s Vice President, had founded PCIB with fellow sugar barons from Negros and Iloilo. Not related to the Lopezes but nevertheless their trusty, Jake says the 51 million shares were once in the name of the family’s First Holdings Corp. The block’s transfer to TMEE was the icing on the cake of Kokoy’s wresting from the Lopezes two of the biggest Philippine companies at the time, Meralco and ABS-CBN.

Immortalized in film and history books are the dramatic events. Soon after declaring martial law, Marcos bade Kokoy, then of little wealth, to negotiate the turnover of the Lopez businesses. Eugenio Sr. resisted, but his son Geny, then president of ABS-CBN and active in other family firms, was arrested for allegedly plotting with Serge Osmeña (now senator) to kill Marcos. Forlorn the father ceded his conglomerate to Kokoy in exchange for the promised release of his son. The dictator never fulfilled his end of the deal, however, and even moved Geny to solitary confinement. "Cruelly they made (the release) sound so real," Jake still pictures the wealth-grab in his mind, "they even told Geny, who was eager to get out of prison, that he didn’t have time to pass by his house and must drive directly to the airport for the flight to America – which never came." On Jake, as ABS-CBN general manager, fell the unsavory task of smooth turnover of equipment and staff. But he soon also arranged for Geny and Serge’s hunger strike, then gripping escape from prison.

Those events are not part of the Sandigan case. On record are only the proofs and counter-proofs of ownership – and of a recent incident. In late 2005 Kokoy’s son Martin, as EPCIB director, enjoyed a short stint as chairman. As such, he informed the board of a desire to comply with a long-standing Sandigan order to deposit, in escrow with the Land Bank, the dividend and interest earnings of the sequestered 51 million shares. EPCIB gave Martin P138 million, but to this day he has shown no proof that the cash already is with the government bank.

It has been a year since the fast-break withdrawal. The Sandigan has yet to rule on the Lopez plea to cite EPCIB in contempt for defying court orders. Meanwhile, the PCGG is planning to negotiate with the Marcoses and their kin for out-of-court sharing of the ill-gotten wealth. PCGG chair Camilo Sabio says an amicable settlement would be more profitable for the government than pursuing 1,500 cases with no sure win. But the figures say otherwise. Commissioner Ric Abcede, point man for negotiation, avers that of the P61 billion in hidden wealth that the PCGG has unearthed since 1986, P35 billion came from the Arroyo administration’s court victories, foremost of which are the coconut levy and the PLDT cases. Still, the PCGG policy is to settle, and that would include the overlapping claims of Kokoy and the Lopezes over the EPCIB share block. And with negotiations proceeding as slow as court cases, history might overtake it as well.
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If there’s a rainbow after a storm, it’s the groundswell of concern for the effects on Guimaras Island of the M/T Solar-1 oil spill. People not only have been talking of relief for the fishermen who cannot go out to sea, but also long-term rehabilitation of reefs and mangrove forests.

One activity is a rock concert, "Dinig Guimaras," on Sunday, Sept. 30, at Bela Bar on Wilson corner P. Guevarra Sts., San Juan, Metro Manila. P200 entitles a donor to a free drink, plus music from hot bands: Mano Mano, ERF, Lahi, DRT, Southern Grass, Stoned Cigars, Firefly, Xtra Rise, Godsend, and Snake Jones.
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