THE political temperature is fast rising for Vice President Jojo Binay.
The man who once collected slop for his uncle’s piggery to raise money for his schooling now faces his most serious political crisis over allegations of having unlawfully accumulated millions of pesos, with no less than the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) joining the pack to get him to explain it.
Based on an AMLC report to the Court of Appeals, Binay, his wife and children, and about a dozen business partners and minions, collectively called dummies (or fronts, as his worst critic, Sen. Sonny Trillanes calls them), either individually or jointly, opened and maintained 242 bank, insurance,and investment accounts spread in at least 10 major banks with an aggregate worth, at one point, by the hundreds of millions of pesos.
The appellate court's first division handed down a freeze order dated May 11 on all these accounts, effective for the next six months, in the hope that the unexplained deposits and other transactions wouldn't result in unexplained withdrawals, though some accounts have been mysteriously closed, according to the report, at the start of the now long-running Senate sub-committee hearing looking into the alleged overpricing in the construction of the so-called world-class Makati City Hall Parking Building.
"Probable cause exists that the subject bank accounts are related to the violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act under Republic Act No. 3019 and Republic Act No. 7080, which are unlawful activities under Section 3(i) of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001," the report said.
"Unless frozen, the funds in the subject accounts will certainly be withdrawn thereby placing these beyond reach/recovery," the AMLC told the court in the report.
Binay: Only five accounts
In a statement issued two days later, Binay, a former human rights lawyer, one of the very few originals (who ferociously fought Marcos's corruption when it was still dangerous and unfashionable), said the AMLC had misled the court. He insisted having only five accounts, with the money in these accounts having come from huge campaign contributions from his supporters during the 2010 elections. All these AMLC allegations hurled on him were a sequel, if not the culmination, of a long-runing demolition job meant to destroy his chances in the 2016 presidential elections, he added.
'Leak part of demolition job'
The proof of the demolition job, he said, was the alleged leak of what was supposed to be a confidential document containing the freeze order and AMLC report, confidential precisely because it was an ex-parte--or without trial--petition. It was his critics going all-out for the kill, he said. Wasn't it Winston Churchill who once said: "Politics can be as exciting and as dangerous as war; except that in war you can be killed only once; in politics, many times."?
Created by the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) of 2001, the council is mandated to protect and preserve the integrity of the banking system against money laundering, among other things. Members of the 11th Congress put together the AMLA, amid the skepticism of some senators that the council might seem helpless when ranged against the powerful bank secrecy laws. But they pushed the envelope with the help of the late Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Gov. Rafael Buenaventura, a squeaky-clean advocate.
AMLC can't be 'foolish'
Some sectors believed the 2001 law was a watered-down version, prompting some amendments a few years later, but former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay, one of the law's proponents, said the original law provided the council the strength and the powers to ferret out and assess suspicious banking transactions, with "covered transactions" set at P500,000 cash in one day.
"It (AMLC petition) is not just a (another) report," Magsaysay told ABS-CBN in an interview, endorsing the competence of the council chaired by the incumbent BSP governor, Amando Tetangco, as empowered by the law.
"It is a suspicious transaction report (STR, a term referring to alleged laundered money). Binay can't just ignore it. He can't just say it is foolish," he said.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales prompted the AMLC in November 2014 to start looking at the Binays' alleged banking transactions as a result of an information filed by the vice president's former cronies Nicolas Enciso and Renato Bondal, two of Binay's three main accusers, with little challenge at the Senate hearing.
The third one was his former Vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado who, the AMLC report properly noted, had confessed that he, like Binay, earned millions in kickbacks in Phases 1 and 2 of the controversial Makati building, but that his were in lesser amounts.
In effect, the court's order illustrated that Carpio-Morales and the council had found their testimonies deserving some weight.
What took the council so long?
But if one could call it a criticism on the council, another member of the 11th Congress, former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., a friend of the Binays, posed the question in an interview with ABS-CBN: "What took the council so long to share this information?" If it did so early enough, he said, the alleged unexplained wealth would not have grown as big.
Huge cache of bank records
Submitted to the court supposedly with utmost confidentiality, the council, for all the misgivings about its own legal limitations, had unearthed a huge cache of information as detailed in its report covering alleged banking transactions way back five years ago, from 2009 to 2014, with deposits amounting to up to at least P260 million, and withdrawals amounting to at least P266 million; and with some millions withdrawn the same day these were deposited, only to be transferred to other accounts, raising suspicions of money laundering.
Curiously, one of these multi-million peso transactions were allegedly in the name of Binay's long-time secretary Ebeng Baloloy who, according to the AMLC report, held around 40 different accounts, some of these with her relatives.
Did banks question the deposits?
AMLC raised questions on these transactions--but didn't say why not one of the private depository banks didn't--for instance, as ranged against the Binay couple's actual earnings as reported in their Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Networth (SALN).
“There is a wide gap between his legitimate income and his total bank accounts,” the report said, suggesting that the bank deposits didn't come from sources other than legitimate. “The amount transacted through Vice President Jejomar Binay’s accounts originated from illicit and/or undeclared activities," it said.
In 2009, then still Makati mayor, Binay placed his net worth at P937,773. As vice president, he placed it P541,930 as of end-2011. He accumulated an aggregate amount of P6 million in salary from 2007 to 2014 as mayor and P7 million as vice president from 2010 to 2014.
Can Binay explain his wealth?
"Definitely, Jojo Binay has some explaining to do," Pimentel told ABS-CBN. Pimentel wanted it made clear that his views were solicited by ABS-CBN, not offered, in response to the question during this interview, noting that the AMLC report likewise involved foreign currency transactions.
"That (freeze order) is a good preliminary move toward unearthing the truth," he said. "If properly handled, the truth will set him free. But am in no position (to judge it)."
But if Binay can explain only five bank accounts, how else explain those of his aides, among them, his long-time friend and financial adviser, Ateneo-schooled Gerry Limlingan, who allegedly held several accounts with him and his other cronies, including Baloloy.
At one point, one of Baloloy's accounts had a deposit of P10 million, and Limlingan, P25 million.
Quoting Baloloy's own SALN, the AMLC report said, as of end-2013, Baloloy had an income of about P697,000 only, though her net worth was placed at P3.7 million.
Like Baloloy's, Mercado's own net worth is questionable, disproportionate to his own banking transactions, according to the report, in 2009, he had a net worth of around P67 million, with a declared income of only around P700,000.
Both Limlingan and Baloloy, who have never appeared in public since the Senate started the Binay hearings, are now strongly believed, despite or precisely because of their long absence, that they could provide the smoking gun, if not the coup de grace, in all the bank transactions as alleged in the AMLC report.
In the same report, Binay, Limlingan, and Baloloy had over a dozen joint accounts. He and Limlingan had kept accounts that served as conduits to foreign accounts, including the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Toronto Dominion Bank, both in Canada. Most deposits were made in cash, with little or no documentations where they came from, the report said.
Can Binay stand the political heat?
Trillanes and Mercado described the court's order as the beginning of the end of Binay's political career, a vindication following the criticisms they received out of the Senate hearing, if only because it might paralyze Binay's own campaign in 2016.
But can this really be Binay's Chappaquiddick? If handled properly, according to Pimentel, the 73-year-old Binay can bounce back. "Unfortunately, there is no limit to the level of accusations one can hurl against anyone in politics." Which makes politics as exciting and as dangerous as war.
But for Binay to survive this one, added Pimentel, "he has to come out clean." First.