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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16

All Bets are Off
Philippine President Estrada reels from allegations that he took kickbacks from illegal gambling

Romeo Gacad/AFP.
Philippine President Joseph Estrada is under fire again after allegations he pocketed millions of dollars from gambling lords in a kickback scandal.

Joseph Estrada is a betting man. The Philippine President loves to play games such as baccarat and monte and is a devotee of mah-jongg—or just about any game of chance. But Lady Luck seems to be abandoning Estrada as the 63-year-old sinks deeper into a gambling scandal that threatens to scuttle his three-year presidency. A former drinking and gambling pal has gone public with accusations that Estrada was chin-deep in an illegal numbers racket that operates throughout the Philippines. According to the whistle-blower, Luis Singson, who for 22 years has been Governor of the northern province of Ilocos Sur, Estrada got from underworld jueteng operators a piece of the racket's profits amounting to $100,000 every two weeks. Singson says he delivered the money personally to the presidential palace and Estrada's residence.

The former film actor, whose roguish charm went a long way toward getting him elected in 1998, is now being denounced as simply a rogue by an array of powerful forces. His own Vice President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, quit the cabinet last week to distance herself from the tainted leader. "I want to help bring back the people's trust," she proclaimed. (Arroyo retains the vice presidency, however, and remains Estrada's constitutional successor.) Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Catholic Church's representative in the Philippines, says Estrada should resign. Sin was instrumental in the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The Reform Action Movement of the Philippine military, a group of reform-minded officers who also played a key role in Marcos' downfall, voiced the same demand last week. The financial markets are making their own judgment: the peso hit a historic low last week, while the Manila stock market, already depressed, took a deeper dive.

Estrada, a freely elected President accountable to a legislature and judiciary, is no Ferdinand Marcos, but he is sounding more and more like his infamous predecessor. He denounced Singson's charges as "black propaganda"—a favorite Marcos-ism—and seems to be gambling for time by calling for an investigation into Singson's allegations. Singson, meanwhile, went before the Philippine Senate to tell a shocking tale, including allegations that he was nearly assassinated early this month to keep him silent—another echo of the ugly Marcos era. Filipinos are watching in dismay as the country seems poised to tumble back to the turbulence of the 1980s.

The mood is turning nasty. "It is not just the Estrada administration that must be brought down," rails congressman Renato Magtubo, president of the pro-labor Sanlakas party. "The whole rotten system must be changed"—and not, Magtubo says, through impeachment and removal, since Estrada's party dominates both houses of the Philippine legislature, but through a People Power-type rebellion. That kind of talk is suddenly rife in Manila, prompting fears among many of unrest. "What we are witnessing is not simply a quarrel between individuals," says Frank Drilon, president of the Philippine Senate. "It is a battle between national unity and survival on one hand and the prospect of disintegration and civil strife on the other."

The Estrada presidency has been tarnished by pecuniary scandals from its start. But he has survived them all, largely because they involved favors or cash that benefited others, not the President himself. Singson's tale, as told to the media and the Senate, makes the previous scandals seem small, and gives a sordid view of the administration. Singson is a veteran political wheeler-dealer and a longtime Estrada compadre, as Filipinos call their close chums: he's the godfather of one of Estrada's children, and the President is godfather to one of his. They're drinking pals: red wine for Singson, Johnny Walker Blue Label for Estrada.

Singson's revelations relate to a numbers racket called jueteng, an illegal but highly popular betting activity in the Philippines controlled by local mafia-type figures. Singson says that soon after Estrada became President, he dictated arrangements for a slice of jueteng proceeds to be delivered to him. Charlie Ang, a businessman, was given the job of collecting the money from each province, Singson claims. But Ang fell out with Estrada over a couple of business deals. One, according to Singson, was the delivery of $2.7 million skimmed from the cigarette excise tax collected by Singson's own province's government. Ang allegedly pocketed part of the money, Singson says; as a result, Singson took over the duty of delivering jueteng proceeds, usually cash stuffed in attachE cases, to Estrada.

Singson says he found the role "embarrassing," but it seems he didn't mind the arrangement until it was about to end. Last August, Singson says, Estrada announced that jueteng was going to be replaced by a legalized lottery system known as Bingo 2-Ball. Estrada also indicated that Ang would become a consultant to the government-run Philippine Amusement & Gaming Corp. Ang, in turn, said the lottery franchise would be run by former congressman Eric Singson, Luis' cousin and bitter political rival in Ilocos Sur. Singson squawked and pleaded that the franchise should go to his own brother instead, but Estrada refused. Eventually, Singson threatened to blow the whistle on the jueteng scam if his brother didn't get the franchise, a move that put him on a collision course with the President. On Oct. 3, according to Singson, after a meeting with Ilocos Sur mayors in Manila his car was stopped by a group of policemen brandishing machine guns. Singson refused to open the door—the car was bulletproof—and, by mobile phone, called the mayors to come rescue him. He told the Senate last week it was an obvious assassination attempt. Now Singson doesn't sleep in one place two nights running.

Estrada has denied all of Singson's charges, but his denial isn't going down well with the man in the street. A poll by Manila television station ABS-CBN last week showed that 67% of those asked believe that Estrada took the money, while only 12% believed the President. Estrada himself is said to be depressed and has stayed mostly out of sight. "He is certain that at some point the truth will come out," says Ronaldo Zamora, his executive secretary. "What is bothering him is that this may result in the presidency being crippled." The bigger question is whether the scandal could lead to a repeat of the People Power demonstrations of 1986, which toppled Marcos. The only certainty: Estrada is now in the riskiest gamble of his career.

Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Manila

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