FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno () - September 19, 2009 - 12:00am

The irony of it all is that the Yuchengco stake in PLDT has not been doing too badly over the past 11 years — or since Ambassador Al Yuchengco was said to have been coerced into a deal with Metro-Pacific Corporation.

Interest in this mega-deal was renewed over the past few days after Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in an omnibus tirade against former president Joseph Estrada, alleged that the latter applied coercion to force the elder Yuchengco to agree to sell his shares in the PTIC. The PITC, at that time, owned a major portion of shares in telecoms giant PLDT.

Yuchengco corroborated Lacson’s accusations about drug charges being trumped up against his son to force him to agree to the Metro Pacific deal. In his book To Leave a Good Name, he claimed that armed men were sent to his office by then newly-installed President Estrada. He was left no option but to agree to the deal.

The tycoon even mentions that the armed men were accompanied by Ambassador Alberto del Rosario, a claim the latter vehemently denies.

There has been lingering rumors that Estrada received a substantial amount for his efforts at facilitating this deal. Metro Pacific denies this.

Former SEC chairman Perfecto Yasay has stepped into the controversy, repeating claims made over a decade ago that Estrada and his men received a whopping P2 billion for helping ensure this deal is sealed. That is a rather startling number, considering that the deal involved about only P2.6 billion at that time — much of it paid in PLDT shares.

Estrada, for his part, has threatened to sue Yuchengco for libel and donate whatever proceeds from the suit to the victims of the tycoon’s failed pre-need company. The man has not lost his media savvy.

At any rate, this is a recycled story that has somehow been revived and threatens to spin on its own energy. The deal has been perfected and the Yuchengco family has shown no interest so far in reversing the sale. It would be legally impossible to do so. The charges of bribery and coercion have little effect on the outcome of the deal — except for some slight effects on PLDT share prices.

By all accounts, the relationship between PLDT and the Yuchengco family remains cozy. Malayan Insurance gets about two-thirds of the phone company’s insurance business. RCBC continues to be one of PLDT’s partner banks. The ambassador’s daughter Helen Dee has sat on the phone company’s boards since the time of the deal.

When the deal was concluded 11 years ago, the Yuchengco bloc of PITC shares was bought at higher than prevailing market price. The 2 million PLDT shares paid Yuchengco as part of the deal is now worth P4.7 billion by last Wednesday’s closing price.

If, as Lacson suggests, some consideration was paid Estrada and his cohorts for, well, politically facilitating the deal, then that can only be a tragedy for Metro Pacific. If the amount is as large as is being alleged by some quarters, then this should have left a paper trail that due diligence exercised in preparation of a privilege speech ought to have uncovered.

To be sure, serious allegations were made in the Lacson speech. The use of intimidation to force deals makes the presidency a fixer of the highest order. Involvement in smuggling and gambling rings reduces the presidency into a large-scale protection racket.

All the worst caricatures of the failed Estrada presidency pale in comparison to the recital of wrong-doing Lacson paints in his speech. But for some reason, the political explosive detonated on the Senate floor did not seem to resonate as much as expected among the populace.

It could be our people have become inured to the excesses of the Estrada presidency. There have been too many stories told of drunken nights at the Palace and unwholesome characters around the presidential table that a few more stories might seem to simply add a little more horridness to an already horrible tale.

But it could also be that very serious accusations have been made without the benefit of careful documentation. That makes the accusations at once shrill and tinny.

It does not help that Lacson has accumulated a record of delivering speeches that are long on innuendo and short on facts. This paper’s editorial the other day could not help but take issue with the senator’s propensity for trial by publicity. That speech might have been enhanced greatly if the senator bothered to hire some professional help to more reasonably present the main points and avoid unwarranted dramatization.

The Lacson speech precipitated an ugly brawl. A day after it was delivered, Estrada’s son Jinggoy countered with an equally sloppy speech. He offered the weakest possible defense against a broadside of accusations against his father by attacking the accuser’s motives and integrity rather than confronting the facts with the truth.

The weakest part of that speech, highlighted in most of the headlines, was when he suggested that Lacson was an agent of the administration out to ruin the opposition. That simply strays too far beyond the bounds of what might be publicly accepted as credible.

One lousy speech was countered by an even lousier one. The lousier one was ruined even more by the refusal of Jinggoy Estrada to be interpolated on what he just said. He took potshots and scampered away.

Unless Lacson’s second speech surprises us by being immensely better constructed than the first, we are likely in for a long bout of mud-slinging. Two hysterical characters will try to smear as much mud on each other even as either could only be tarred to a point.

There will be little here that might be described as edifying. The two sloppy gladiators will jointly bring down the quality of our public discourse, draining it of honor, decency and statesmanship.

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