An embarrassment of houses

COMPANIES AND business executives linked to San Miguel Corp. (SMC) chairman Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco have been involved in the acquisition and construction of mansions allegedly intended for two of President Estrada’s mistresses.

The trail to Cojuangco is via Ramon S. Ang, vice chair, chief financial officer and treasurer of San Miguel, who is better known as The Boss’s right hand man. As Cojuangco’s chief political and business operator, Ang’s actions were likely at the Boss’s behest, SMC insiders say.

Apart from Ang, Raul de Mesa, president of the Bank of Commerce, controlled by Antonio Cojuangco Jr., was instrumental in the purchase by presidential daughter Jacqueline Ejercito and her husband Manuel Lopez of a 3,000-square-meter lot at 518 Buendia Street in Makati’s swanky Forbes Park. The property was transferred through the use of forged documents in an attempt to evade payment of P9 million in taxes.

If former First Lady Imelda Marcos left behind a trail of shoes, President Joseph Estrada is leaving behind a trail of palatial homes and pricey lots that, unlike footwear, cannot be hidden away in some dark closet in Malacañang.

Our investigation shows that in the last three years, Estrada, his family members, or corporations otherwise associated with the President have acquired at least 17 pieces of choice property in Metro Manila, Baguio and Tagaytay.

Among those who have helped in the acquisition of land or construction of houses through corporate layering and the formation of shell companies are Dante Tan, the chief of BW Resources who has been accused of insider trading and stock price manipulation; Jaime Dichaves, a long-time Estrada friend who has been accused of intervening in the telecommunications industry; and Mark Jimenez, former presidential assistant for Latin American affairs who is facing an extradition case filed by the U.S. government.

In addition, the name of businessman Iñigo Zobel, son of industrialist Enrique Zobel, has been mentioned in dealings regarding a property in South Forbes, Makati.

The role played by companies linked to Estrada associates Jacinto Ng, Lucio Co and Jose Luis Yulo in the acquisition of five properties in Wack Wack, Mandaluyong and New Manila, Quezon City was the subject of our previous report.

According to our calculation, the combined fair market value of 14 properties in Metro Manila alone easily exceeds P2 billion. Two log cabins in Baguio City and two in Tagaytay Highlands believed to be owned by Estrada are worth an additional P250 million.

The President has gone on record to deny having anything to do with some of the houses, but there is evidence to indicate otherwise. There is a discernible pattern in the make and style of the grandiose houses. Most of them are also located in the exclusive enclaves of the old rich—the very people Estrada likes to vilify.

It is also not a random coincidence that two of the houses—one in South Forbes Park supposedly for Guia Gomez, Estrada’s second wife, and the other in Wack Wack for Wife No. 3 Laarni Enriquez—are being constructed by Centech International, a company closely associated with Ang and Cojuangco.

Ang does not deny Centech’s involvement in the constructions of the ritzy residences, but he has said none of these belong to the President or his wives. In a faxed statement, he said he is a stockholder of Centech, which was formed in August 1988 as one of the many purchasing arms for Cojuangco companies.

When Cojuangco regained control of San Miguel and the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) in 1998, Centech was hired as consultant to perform third-party reviews of purchases, for which it gets a five-percent handling fee. Centech, as far as can be ascertained, has not constructed any houses until now.

Enriquez’s Wack Wack mansion, several contractors and suppliers interviewed for this story said, is “regalo ni Boss (the Boss’s gift),” referring to Cojuangco, who is called Boss by his subordinates.

“We were told by Centech that it was Laarni’s—regalo ni ‘Boss,’” said a contractor. “That’s why they (Centech) were getting the best people for the project.”

“It’s not true,” Ang said in his statement. “Centech is the project manager for the construction of a two-story residential house owned by KB Space Holdings at 796-800 Harvard St., Wack Wack Village. KB Space Holdings is paying for the construction costs.” As earlier reported, KB Space Holdings is a company owned by Ng, one of the President’s closest friends.

Most of the contractors and suppliers, for their part, said they transacted with and were paid by Centech. But they said that at least one contractor was paid by Enriquez herself.

Interestingly enough, Centech is also the project manager of the ongoing construction of a two-story, four-bedroom house rising on a 3,000-square meter lot at 2 Molave corner Banaba Streets in South Forbes. According to contractors and people close to Gomez, that property is intended for either her or her son, Jose Victor ‘JV’ Ejercito. Ang, however, claimed that he is building the house for his family.

Land records show that the Forbes Park property is owned by Standard Constructors Inc., in which Ang said he is a stockholder. Corporate records show that the company was formed by Centech top officials Mario Surio and Roscel Celestial, and Roberto Huang, another Centech stockholder and vice president and national sales manager of San Miguel Brewing.

Standard Constructor’s corporate secretary is lawyer Virgilio Jacinto, who is also corporate secretary and general counsel of the UCPB, which has a board filled with many recommendees of Ang and Cojuangco. Jacinto, according to SMC insiders, is close to Ang, who put the former in effective control of the legal work for San Miguel.

Ang started out as car mechanic for Cojuangco, who has a passion for engines. He was entrusted with running the Cojuangco companies while the former was in exile, and is considered the Boss’s fair-haired child. Today the brash, forty-something Ang runs the day-to-day operations of San Miguel and also plays a central role in the political wheeling-dealing that Cojuangco is known for.

The houses appear to be part of that wheeling-dealing. After all, in 1992, Estrada gave up his bid for the presidency to become Cojuangco’s running mate under the Nationalist People’s Coalition. In 1998, Cojuangco was one of Estrada’s biggest supporters. A day after Estrada’s election to the presidency, Cojuangco wrested control of SMC.

The friendship continues. The President, in fact, frequently travels in private planes lent to him by Cojuangco’s Golden Aero Air Corp. Estrada was also among Cojuangco’s guests at his birthday bash this year in the tycoon’s hacienda in Negros Occidental, as was Gomez, who is herself a Negrense and a close friend of Cojuangco and his wife, Gretchen.

The fair market value of the Forbes Park property is P150 million. In a report to the Makati City government’s building office, Standard Constructors estimated the cost of the new mansion that comes with a steel-paneled, vinyl-lined “infinity pool” and a four-car basement garage at a low P25.7 million.

The construction has been entrusted chiefly to Kanlaon Construction Enterprises Co., Inc., a general building contractor owned by the President’s Ateneo High School classmate, Antonio S. Evangelista. Kanlaon’s vice president for finance, Rosario Razon, sits on the UCPB board.

The project’s architect is Conrado Onglao of ADR Designs Inc. Onglao has also been tapped to design another house in Forbes Park, this time for presidential daughter Jackie and her husband Manuel ‘Beaver’ Lopez.

By his own admission, it was Ang who brought in his “best friend” Iñigo Zobel “to assist in the design” of the Molave St. residence. Records show that Zobel has been designated Standard Constructors’ representative in its application for building permits and licenses. Zobel has also been appointed to the SMC board, supposedly because of the backing of Ang, with whom, friends said, he often hangs out at the Orange Bar in Makati.

Yet while there seems to be yet another grand mansion in the making at Molave St., it still would pale in comparison with what was being constructed at 796-800 Harvard St. in Wack-Wack. That house’s planned floor area spans 2,800 square meters, which is equivalent to the floor area of 70 low-cost housing units.

The land alone has a fair market value of P192 million. The structure is conservatively estimated at another P90 million and excludes the cost of site development. Backhoes were used to excavate the property, which has a basement and car park.

The Wack-Wack house was designed by architect Ruben Payumo’s firm RR Payumo and Partners. Payumo, a close friend of businessman Manuel Zamora, is also the architect of the log cabin at 30 Paterno St. in Baguio City, said to be the President’s, and the log cabins at Camp John Hay that Estrada and his buddies have purchased.

Up until a few weeks ago, workers of Madera Construction, owned by Payumo’s brother Alberto, were still busy putting together what was said to be the President and Enriquez’s “dream retirement home.” But construction there came to a dead stop shortly after the PCIJ’s October exposé on presidential mansions, and efforts were made to alter the interiors.

“It’s clear from the plan that it’s a politician’s house,” said a contractor, pointing out the 350-square-meter public area on the Wack-Wack mansion’s ground floor that looks like a hotel lobby with several meeting areas and a sunken bar. Other contractors also described the house’s design as “scandalous.”

The master’s bedroom, along with the master’s lounge, walk-in-closets and bathroom, is 255 square meters. The 90-square-meter bathroom within it features a jacuzzi six feet in diameter, the size of a small wading pool, and a sauna, one of two found in the house. The second sauna is situated in a 60-square-meter area next to the master’s bedroom where a massage room, full-sized gym and beauty parlor are also located.

The kitchen, which takes up another 90 square meters, is industrial-type with areas for hot and cold preparation, similar to those in hotels. A smaller kitchen is located on the second floor while a pantry is found at the basement near the family theater.

The mini-theater is 153 square meters, about the same size as ABS-CBN’s preview room that can hold 30 people. The doors are nine feet tall.

The electrical works, including those for the centralized air-conditioning, are as complicated as a shopping mall’s. Contractors said the house is fitted with a 125kva generator, enough to light a small barrio, and a big balcony that can hold an orchestra.

The contract for the interior structural work is said to be about P50 million, and covers only floors, walls, ceilings, cabinets and partitions, all done in solid narra. Contractors said most of the materials were owner-supplied. If the contractors were to supply both labor and materials, the contract would have reached P150 million.

The sum excludes the acoustics work done on the theater at the basement, which runs at P4 million, without the architectural finishes such as carpeting.

The landscaping, involving 2,000 square meters and done by renowned landscape artist Shirley Sanders, cost another P4 million. The “Class A” project made use of expensive plants, including full-grown royal palm trees.

Sources said fabrics used for the interior cost as much as P7,000 a yard. The imported Spanish clay roofing tiles, supplied by Rodclay Roofing Inc., were bought for under P1 million and were hauled from the ground to the roof with an electronic ladder.

Work at the Wack-Wack property was so massive that KB Space Holdings deposited P500,000 with the Wack-Wack Homeowners Association to cover an estimated 500 trips by trucks, including those of Centech, hauling materials to the posh subdivision.

But several contractors now say that workers still allowed in the Wack-Wack property have been busy moving things out of the house and tearing down improvements already installed. Even window frames were taken out in an apparent attempt to make the mansion appear less grand. “Binabakbak na (They’re tearing it down),” said one contractor of the activities there.

Barangay officials in New Manila, Quezon City also said that two weeks ago, there were sightings of trucks hauling things out of the infamous “Boracay” property at 100 11th Street in the dead of the night. According to the officials, they have not had a chance to inspect the house.

Contractors said among the first thing Interior Secretary Afredo Lim ought to have done after being ordered by Estrada to “investigate” the mansions was to have the properties in question sealed off. By the time the President’s impeachment trial begins in two weeks, they said, the mansions may have already become less opulent at the very least.

Getting rid of the paper trail, however, may prove more complicated than tearing down interiors and trucking away furniture and the white sand from which the Boracay house got its name.

The President himself told radio listeners on Nov. 20 that Enriquez had merely brokered the Wack-Wack lot’s sale to jewelers Carlos and Mariquita ‘Mariquita’ Yeung, and was helping them look after it. But a detailed furniture layout prepared by Steven J. Leach Associates, which was hired to do the interior design of the house, prominently displays the names of the President’s three children by Enriquez—Jerika, Jake (Juan Emilio) and Jacob—on the spaces that were to become their second-floor bedrooms.

Sources close to the interior design firm said the bigger-than-normal color boards prepared for the Wack-Wack project also bore the names of the children, who were consulted about the design plans. They said 15-year-old Jerika even requested several revisions.

Steven J. Leach Associates is famous for designing interiors of clubhouses and offices, including the Sherwood Hills, Southwoods, Forest Hills clubhouses and the offices of Bloomberg, Microsoft, Sithe Asia, and AEtna. Among the few residences it has handled is that of Iñigo and Maricris Zobel.