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OCTOBER 20, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 41 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Jay Directo/AFP .
Joseph Estrada's future as president may soon be placed in the hands of Congress.

All Played Out?
Estrada's presidency is on the line over a gambling payoffs scandal
By PENNY CRISP and ANTONIO LOPEZ Manila

ALSO:

Jueteng money: Estrada defends himself against the claims
Record: The litany of unending controversies
Interview: Accuser Singson tells his side of the story


Is his number up? That is really the only question. Long dogged by charges of cronyism and corruption, Philippine President Joseph Ejercito Estrada now stands accused of taking millions of pesos in kickbacks from an illegal gambling racket. The peso has crashed to record lows against the U.S. dollar. The world's fifth-worst performing stock market has swooned afresh. Among opposition congressmen, impeachment is the sentiment. Even Estrada's chief of staff concedes that the presidency might be crippled — whatever the outcome of the latest scandal. The president himself is in a fighting mood, according to his spokesman. He'd better be. The stakes don't come much higher than this.

Never in the 27 months of his presidency has Estrada been accused of taking money for himself. Moreover, in an exclusive interview with Asiaweek, he vehemently denies having received a single cent in payoffs. "There's nothing to it but fabricated accusations and baseless charges," he says (see page 33). Yet there has been a slew of other allegations throughout his presidency — pressuring the Securities and Exchange Commission to clear a businessman friend of insider-trading charges, coddling another businessman friend by suspending commercial agreements and maneuvering to have tax violations overlooked. There have been charges that his family and mistresses have profited from his presidency. That he has tried to muzzle the press. That he attends to matters of state while boozing into the night with his buddies. In all of this, nothing has ever been proven.

There are no heroes in this tale. Estrada's accuser is a former drinking and gambling mate, whose allegations have laid him open to prosecution. "Estrada should resign," says the erstwhile friend, Luis "Chavit" Singson. "The country has no future if we continue with him. He is not just a gambling lord. He is a gambling god. He is the most corrupt person I have ever met."

Singson, the governor of provincial Ilocos Sur on the main island of Luzon, has presented himself as the smoking gun (see page 34). He called a press conference to claim that over 22 months from November 1998, he paid the president a total of $11.7 million — $2.8 million for the release of tobacco tax money to Singson's province and nearly $8.9 million in proceeds from an illegal numbers game called jueteng. (All figures are calculated at the rate of 46.5 pesos to the dollar.) The lottery-style jueteng, in which punters choose a two-number combination from one to 37, is an enduring Philippine pastime, mainly for the poor. The poor that Estrada promised to exalt when he ran for office. "We used about 15 attachE cases," says Singson. "I would bring in an attachE case full of money and take back an empty attachE case." He claims money was exchanged not just a few times, but 40.

Yet Singson seems most concerned about what he sees as a double-cross by an old friend he had carefully cultivated. He says Estrada turned around and gave a gambling consultancy contract to another businessman, Charlie "Atong" Ang. Ang last month helped the state-run Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. launch a new lottery game called Bingo Two-Ball, which is designed to be a legal (and revenue-raising) replacement for jueteng. About the same time as Singson began airing his allegations, Estrada canceled Ang's contract and suspended the new game — "pending review of its systems and operation procedures." Claims Singson: "Ang promised to deliver to him billions if he were to take charge of the entire Bingo Two-Ball operations." Estrada alleges that Singson wanted to retain illegal gambling in Ilocos Sur and two neighboring provinces. "He got mad when I rejected him," the president says.

While not viewed as the most morally upstanding of political warlords, Singson, by incriminating himself, has only strengthened the allegations. "The governor has testified against himself, that he is involved in illegal gambling and that he received payoffs from gambling lords and gave money to the president," says Salvador Panuelo, one of Singson's lawyers. "In a court of law, the best evidence is testimony against oneself." Indeed, an informal television network poll found that 60% of respondents believe the allegations against Estrada. "What matters is . . . the court of public opinion," says opposition Sen. Rene Cayetano. "Singson may be a polluted witness but the people believe him." A former National Police chief, Roberto Lastimoso, has also confirmed that he received instructions personally from the president to "go easy" on jueteng.

In fact, Singson's allegations against Estrada may be just the tip of the political iceberg. When the governor first made his claims, two senators returned $26,000 that each had received from him — 18 months after it was given. They both said they thought the money was balato (giveaway) from Singson's casino winnings. "The gesture is proof that what Singson has been saying is correct," alleges Cayetano. Singson also has claimed that three cabinet members received money from him.

The president's political lieutenants have aimed to discredit Singson by releasing a hastily prepared outline of audit reports from 1997 and 1998. The outline alleges the governor siphoned $43 million from his provincial budget. Singson retorts that he paid the money to Estrada, and that he has documents to support his claims. "It would be better if Singson comes out with the evidence, as he has promised," says Estrada's chief of staff Ronaldo Zamora. Yet Singson tried to do just that only days after making his claims, appearing before the House of Representatives Committee on Public Order and Security. First the committee spent two hours debating whether or not to hear him (the matter should, in any case, have been heard by the Justice Committee). Then Singson managed to testify under oath for 30 seconds before being gagged by majority congressmen from Estrada's party.

Therein may lie the rub. Because the president's Lamp party dominates Congress, any move to impeach him may be doomed. The numbers don't add up in either the House or the Senate. Yet when Singson spoke before the House committee, a Lamp congressman moved a motion to have his brief statement ("I came here personally to accuse the lord of all jueteng lords, no less than the president of the Republic of the Philippines, Joseph Ejercito Estrada") stricken from the record. The motion was carried 23-22, with five abstentions. In a committee so dominated by presidential supporters, such a narrow margin was tantamount to a loss. Impeachment may not be such a wild notion.

A far less troublesome scenario for the loyal lawmakers, of course, is for Estrada to resign. He says he intends to fulfill his six-year mandate, but there is no shortage of people urging him to quit. Says Catholic church leader Cardinal Jaime Sin: "In the light of all the scandals that have besmirched the image of the presidency in the last two years, we stand by our conviction that he has lost the moral ascendancy to govern. He must relinquish his office and turn it over to his constitutional successor [Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo]." Sin's words recalled for some his role in supporting the 1986 People Power uprising that unseated dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Indeed, there is People Power-style food for thought in the current mess. While Singson has presented his evidence to a Senate hearing, its findings cannot be used as basis for impeachment. And while there is nothing in the Constitution that can remove the president outside of impeachment — unless he resigns or is incapacitated — there is another provision that has never been used. A signature campaign can ask the president to resign. Says Senate President Franklin Drilon: "What we are witnessing is not simply a quarrel between individuals. It is a battle between national unity and survival, and the prospect of disintegration and civil strife."

Estrada believes that the truth will vindicate him. "I am trying to reform illegal gambling," he says. "Any reform will encounter resistance." Senate majority leader Francisco Tatad says Estrada should be able to finish his term, "but first and foremost, the president's credibility must be rebuilt."

That was a tough task even before the jueteng affair. Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, ruling party chairman of the Senate anti-graft body, concedes that the situation is bad for the president, bad for the nation and bad for the institution of the presidency. But it is also murderous on the flailing economy — which has the slowest growth in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. "All these [scandals] do not make the Philippines an attractive place for investments," says businessman Jose Concepcion Jr.

Estrada must now think very carefully about his next move. Even if he recovers from "juetengate," the Philippines may not be as lucky.

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