February 2007
Local Bosses

The ‘kingmaker’ anoints his queen

KINGMAKER. Rodolfo ‘Bong’ Pineda [Artwork by Nonoy Marcelo]

THERE WERE just 10 hours left to 2006, and practically everyone around the country was preparing to welcome the New Year. But in Lubao, Pampanga — the hometown of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — more than 7,000 leaders and residents of nearby Porac were busy preparing for a showdown to take place in May 2007. And when the main speaker finally took to the stage at the rally held at the Lubao gym, he turned out to be Rodolfo ‘Bong’ Pineda, who may have spent the last two decades dodging the public eye, but is nevertheless acknowledged to be a major political kingmaker.

The balding 57-year-old Pineda was onstage for nearly half an hour. His message, however, could be boiled down to a single sentence: End the Lapid era in Pampanga politics.

Trying to make sense of what that rare public appearance by Pineda meant, local columnist Caesar Lacson commented, “It suggested two things: Bridges have been burned and it signaled his unmaking of the Lapids.”

And how. For there was the notoriously elusive Pineda, a good five months before the midterm elections, declaring war on former Governor Manuel ‘Lito’ Lapid, now a senator, and his son Mark, the current Pampanga chief executive. Not only that, the person he was endorsing to challenge the younger Lapid in the upcoming gubernatorial race was no other than his wife, provincial board member Lilia ‘Baby’ Pineda.

Ali ku mag-interes king posisyun keng laban a iti (In this fight, I am not interested in gaining any position),” Bong Pineda said at the rally.

Business leaders later decoded Pineda’s action this way: He wanted it known that he was going to directly manage his wife’s campaign — and that he was going to make sure she would win. And just so no one would mistake what he wanted to happen, he had come out and declared it loud and clear. The kingmaker had spoken, and for the first time, he had done it in the open.

In Pampanga, where he hails from and continues to live, most people believe Pineda has helped many politicians — local and national — in their careers. These include former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, President Arroyo, and the Lapids. At one point in his speech, in fact, Pineda confirmed he supported the candidacies of both Lito and Mark Lapid in the 2004 polls. He skipped the details, though, on how exactly he helped them win.

But going by the controversies and investigations that have dogged him for years, Pineda appears to have been no small patron. Said to be wealthy on account of an alleged jueteng business across Luzon and elsewhere, Pineda has reportedly bankrolled the campaigns of various national and local officials supposedly in exchange for protecting the trade.

At the height of the Garci tapes scandal in 2005, Michaelangelo ‘Louie’ Zuce, nephew of controversial Commissioner on Elections official Virgilio Garcillano, even issued a sworn statement in which he said Pineda’s wife Lilia had distributed envelopes containing money during two dinners hosted by President Arroyo at her La Vista home four months before the May 2004 polls. Among the recipients were Commission on Elections officials and himself, said Zuce.

Location map of Pampanga courtesy of Wikipedia

Unlike with other politicians, Pineda had personal reasons for helping Arroyo. Aside from being his kabalen (provincemate), she is also his kumadre, being the godmother of his only son, Dennis, the 30-something mayor of Lubao. But in response to the allegations of payoffs taking place in her own home, the president later retorted that “no one gives bribes in front of me.”

Pineda’s role in the previous administration was supposedly played out differently. According to Ilocos Sur Governor Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson, Pineda was the one originally “assigned” to deliver then President Estrada’s cut in the jueteng protection money to presidential pal Charlie ‘Atong’ Ang. Singson said it was Estrada himself who designated Pineda to do so in August 1998, barely two months after Estrada was sworn in as president. Singson, however, became the payoff collector in October 1998 after Estrada and Ang had a falling-out.

PINEDA, OF course, is not about to admit being what people say he is, since the game he is believed to operate in at least nine provinces (including Mindoros Occidental and Oriental, as well as Camarines Norte) is illegal. In an interview with the PCIJ after his New Year’s Eve speech, Pineda even let loose a warning addressed to the Lapids, saying they should not make the mistake of raising the issue of jueteng against his wife.

He may, however, admit that he was raised on income his father Jose made from operating the Spanish card game monte. One of his former friends also says that Pineda got his own start in 1969, at age 19, when he got hired as a helper to a Pampanga congressman who was a monte operator. When that lawmaker left politics, Pineda was said to have been promoted as overseer of his monte operations in Rizal, San Juan (Metro Manila), and Quezon City.

By several accounts, Pineda is said to have struck out on his own in 1986, and while his game of choice was not monte, he did hit it big quite quickly. By then he was married to Lilia, a former buko (coconut) vendor whom he had met in a cockfighting arena. But Pineda ran into trouble just a decade later, when he was among alleged big-name jueteng operators such as Antonio ‘Tony’ Santos of Marikina (who was also said to be Pineda’s mentor), Rosario ‘Charing’ Magbuhos of Quezon, Regalado ‘Otto’ Balboa (also of Pampanga), and Reynaldo ‘Rene’ Reyes of Angeles City, who were charged with corruption of public officials. They were all acquitted in 1998, but not before they were grilled in Congress on their supposed jueteng activities.

Police insiders in Pampanga now say that Pineda can afford to skirt the jueteng issue, as well as spare his wife from it, because he has “converted” the game to its legal version: the small town lottery (STL). But Romualdo Quiñones, chief of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office’s STL project management office in Manila, says Pineda’s name does not appear in any corporate documents of STL license holders. Still, Pineda reportedly owns and runs several businesses, among them fast-food franchises, a construction firm, and a hardware store that could help explain his apparent prosperity, which has enabled him to build a mansion with fortress-like walls in Concepcion, Lubao, in Pampanga.

What no one is denying is the fact that Pampanga remains very much the country’s jueteng capital, and that whoever is running the game’s operations there can wield significant political clout locally — perhaps even nationally — if he or she so wills it. For one, a jueteng operator is the one individual that can afford to be generous to politicians in need of cash for their campaigns, given a multimillion “business” that is free of taxes. For another, he or she has a ready network of loyal cabos (headmen) and cobradores (collectors) who can easily spread the word about a candidate who has his or her basbas (blessings).

Jueteng operators are also known to be the “substitute” departments of social welfare and of public works in many towns and provinces, considering the amount of money they pour into community projects such as artesian wells, basketball courts, and roads, as well as the doleouts they give to almost anyone who approaches them for financial help. This then gives jueteng bosses a deep well of goodwill into which the politicians they deem worthy of their time and attention (among other things) can also dip and use to help propel themselves into public office.

INTERVIEWED RECENTLY by a Manila-based radio station, Governor Mark Lapid acknowledged that he received help from the Pinedas in the 2004 elections. But he said there was no money involved; the help, said the 27-year-old governor, came in the form of the “leaders” of Lilia Pineda, who he said his party had adopted. He had no knowledge regarding any aid the Pinedas may have extended to his father in previous elections, he said, because he was “still studying” at the time.

POLITICAL CLOUT. Pineda has reportedly bankrolled the campaigns of various national and local officials supposedly in exchange for protecting jueteng.

In truth, few politicians would admit — at least in public — to having received help from Pineda. The governor’s own father, the action film star/senator Lito Lapid, has denied it was Pineda who “provided” him a political party when he ran for the Senate in 2004, as many Kapampangans assert. At the very least, the Lapids, like other politicos, were once welcome visitors to Pineda’s Concepcion mansion. During the last elections, even barangay captains had made a beeline for the well-guarded Pineda home.

This time around, though, Pineda himself says his doors are closed to the Lapids. In his interview with the PCIJ, he made it clear any reconciliation with the senator and governor was no longer feasible.

“Wala na siyang magagawa (There’s nothing more that he can do),” said Pineda, referring to the senator. “Pumunta na siya sa presidente (He better go to the president).”

Which is exactly what Senator Lapid has been trying to do in the last few weeks, for the sake of his son, who is running for reelection. But President Arroyo seems to be too preoccupied with other matters; when she visited Pampanga last week with the administration’s senatorial slate, she still failed to endorse the younger Lapid for governor, much to the dismay of both father and son.

When Pineda took to the stage in Lubao two months ago, he listed the reasons why he had gotten upset with the Lapids. The feud, he said, stemmed from the “failure” of the Lapids to raise quarry taxes — an alleged scam that began when Lito Lapid was still the governor. But Pineda also said he had found it arrogant for the Lapids to refuse third-term mayors in the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats’ lineup for board members. And, he said, it irked him that the senator snubbed him during a golf game in the United States when it was the senator’s own advisers who had proposed that they talk and settle the rift.

He did not include in his bases for severing links with the Lapids their rejection of his son, Lubao Mayor Dennis Pineda, as the governor’s running mate. He said his wife’s assessment that the governor was not serving the province’s poor held more weight in his decision to go against the Lapids.

During his interview with the PCIJ, Pineda declined to say how much he would spend on his wife’s campaign. He did say, however, that it would “not be so big” because she seemed to be an “acceptable alternative” to the incumbent.

Lilia Pineda herself will not give figures, saying she hopes to “get the votes on a platform of pro-poor programs than on dangling favors or buying votes.” A capitol official says that a gubernatorial campaign would need a minimum of P50 million, but he believes the amount could go “several times higher,” considering the intense determination of both camps to win.

BUSINESS AND political leaders in Pampanga have noted that when Pineda announced his wife’s gubernatorial bid, he had made it a point to get to his wife’s side the entire local leadership of Porac, the Lapids’ bailiwick — from the mayor and vice mayor, down to all the councilors and barangay leaders.

But Fidel Arcenas, the governor’s campaign manager, is not ready to call Lilia Pineda’s bid as the most difficult challenge yet in the political careers of the senator and the governor. He points out that both Lapids had won overwhelmingly in past local elections, their victories essentially changing the province’s political landscape, which had previously been dominated by the landed gentry and intellectuals. Besides, he says, the senator is gunning for the Makati mayoralty seat — a move seen by many as having been masterminded by Malacañang to get the city’s noisy anti-Arroyo mayor, Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay, out of the way.

The governor, meanwhile, has removed Bong Pineda out of the equation, says Arcenas. He adds, “He’s looking at Lilia Pineda as a board member. He is not considering her relationship with her husband. He’s looking at it (from) a political point of view. He feels confident that he will face a fair fight with her.”

Several observers in Pampanga find such a stance rather naïve. Scoffed one trader, echoing the perceptions of many Mekenis: “If Bong Pineda helped make presidents out of Erap and Gloria, why can he not make a governor out of Lilia?”

Lilia Pineda herself has said that while the plan to run for governor was solely hers, prompted by the clamor of local leaders who want an end to the “poor leadership” of the young governor, her husband is “not one to just watch and let Kapampangans suffer.”

This is even as she has also emphasized that she is capable of financing her own campaign, enumerating her businesses that include a stone-crushing plant, a recruitment agency, and selling purified water. The 56-year-old mother of four is no political tyro as well, having sat as a town councilor for five years, before going on to completing three terms as Lubao mayor. She is now in her second term as provincial board member.

Observers say, too, that it was largely through Lilia that Bong Pineda was able to build a reputation for legendary generosity.

For sure, many of what she has spearheaded are seen as “family efforts.” This includes relief operations that are organized faster than what the provincial capitol manages to muster. On Christmas Day, the Pineda mansion is opened for gift-giving, with poor people lining up by the thousands to avail themselves of packages of food.

It is Lilia, however, who has acquired the label of being the “mother of perpetual help.” At least two parish priests confirm that Lilia had made big contributions to church-building projects after the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. She has also reportedly helped hundreds of people ill with cancer or with psychological problems, as well as provided shelter for many abused women and children. With her maternal instinct seemingly in perennial overdrive, Lilia has been called “nanay (mother)” even by her new political rival, Governor Lapid.

LACSON THE columnist recalls that Lilia Pineda held consultations for her gubernatorial plan as early as 1999. She confirms this, but says that she held back to give the young Lapid a chance to prove his worth.

The governor has assessed his leadership to be “very effective,” arguing that he works directly with the province’s more than 300 barangay captains. But Bacolor Mayor Romeo Dungca, vice president of the Pampanga Mayors’ League and one of the 17 mayors who broke away from the Lapids and moved to President Arroyo’s Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi) last November, says they pushed Lilia Pineda to go for the capitol because “no one at the moment has the resolve, resources, and popularity to fight the Lapids.” Recently, another mayor bolted from the side of the Lapids, leaving them with only four out of the province’s 22 mayors.

Former Pampanga Rep. Juan Pablo Bondoc, though, hints that if Pampanga were to choose only between the incumbent and Lilia Pineda for governor, the province would end up the loser either way.

“I am not convinced that the two are running out of principles,” said Bondoc, the House’s former deputy majority leader, when he confirmed last month that business leaders were egging him to run as governor. “They will not slug it out because they want to serve us Kapampangans. They just want to divide the spoils in illegal quarry and illegal gambling.”

Bondoc lost to Mark Lapid in the 2004 elections. Today, says the former legislator, some business leaders especially fear the rise — by proxy — of Bong Pineda to the capitol and the legitimacy his wife’s win could lend to him.

But Laudisima Aluarte, a 73-year-old farmer who was among those who attended the New Year’s Eve rally, says her choice for governor will not be based on quarry or jueteng issues. She says, “Ing buri kung abalu nanu talaga ing balak dang gawan para kareng pakakalulung kalupa ku (What I want to really know is their plans for poor people like me).”