Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Subic graft case may include Erap

By Michael Lim Ubac Inquirer News Service

THE OMBUDSMAN yesterday said jailed ex-President Joseph Estrada might be included in the graft charges filed against Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority chair Felicito Payumo and an SBMA investor over an allegedly highly irregular deal in the freeport. The deal, involving a scheme to "offset" the rental arrears of the investor, had been approved by Estrada on Feb. 3, 1999.

The Ombudsman said the ousted president, once included as a co-respondent, would be required to answer charges that he violated the Anti-Graft Law in approving the "offsetting" scheme for the land leased from the SBMA by Antonio Lopa. Lopa owns the SBMA-based Asian Armored Vehicles Technologies Corp. which manufactures armored personnel carriers for the military. Payumo, who allegedly lobbied for the approval of the scheme, reportedly received a bullet-proof Chevrolet Suburban car from Lopa. Both Lopa and Payumo were Estrada’s classmates at the Ateneo High School. "Once we determine that the former president benefited from the deal, the Ombudsman will require him to submit his reply," said lawyer Emilio Gonzalez, director for General Investigation and Public Assistance Services of the Office of the Ombudsman for Luzon. The ousted president could be included as a co-respondent even though he was not formally charged if it can be established that he used his immense powers to approve the deal.

The complaint was filed by Edwin Piano, a resident of Olongapo City and former SBMA employee. He named Payumo and Lopa as respondents. According to the complaint-affidavit, Asian Armored had been unable to make lease payments to the SBMA for the past five years, its rentals amounting to P21 million. Piano alleged that Lopa and Payumo connived to avoid payment of the lease rentals by allegedly making it appear that the Lopa company had offered two armored personnel carriers to SBMA to offset its unpaid lease payments. Instead of two APCs, however, the SBMA was allegedly given the bullet-proof Chevrolet Suburban that was assigned for Payumo’s use.

Gonzalez said Payumo had already submitted his counter-affidavit. Lopa has asked to be given more time to file a counter-affidavit, said Gonzalez who vowed to finish the investigation next month. Payumo has downplayed Piano’s suit as "mere harassment," saying the charges were "malicious, bereft of truth and purely intended to malign" him. Speaking through lawyer Frank Abella, the SBMA deputy administrator, Payumo said Piano was an appointee of his predecessor, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon.

He defended the scheme as a dacion en pago (payment in kind) settlement that the SBMA normally resorts to for investors affected by the financial crunch. Abella said it was not true that Asian Armored promised to provide two APCs to offset its unpaid lease rentals. He said what Lopa’s company offered was a bullet-proof Chevrolet Suburban with a value of P4.9 million and not P8 million as claimed by Piano.


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