Senators outraged by 'Binay dummy' land deal
MANILA, Philippines – How did a wealthy businesswoman secure public land meant for soldiers and their dependents? Why was she able to buy the lot way cheaper than what it costs now?
Senators said they were outraged by the allegedly anomalous sale of a 8,877-square meter property in Barangay (village) Comembo in Makati to businesswoman Erlinda Chong, supposedly a dummy of Vice President Jejomar Binay. (READ Part 1: How a Binay dummy got a P1B Makati property and Part 2: A Mormon church, Binay dummies, and a land scam)
Senators Aquilino Pimentel III and Antonio Trillanes IV said that the transaction was ridden with “huge violations” of the law if the testimony of Binay's ally-turned-rival former Makati Vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado holds true.
At the 22nd Senate hearing on corruption allegations against Binay on Tuesday, July 7, the senators pointed out that the land was meant for a housing program for soldiers, and a land reform program for informal settlers, but ended up with Chong's family.
They also questioned how Chong was able to buy the lot for only P17 million ($380,000) in 1999 when it is now valued at roughly P1 billion ($20 million).
“Napakasuwerte naman ninyo na si Mrs Erlinda Chong ang nakakuha ng property. Bakit napunta sa inyo? Alam ko kung bakit, dahil kayo ang dummy ni VP Binay,” Trillanes told Chong's son, Kimsfer Chong.
(You are so lucky that Mrs Erlinda Chong got the property. Why did it go to you? I know why, because you are the dummies of VP Binay.)
Pimentel backed him up. “I join in Senator Trillanes' outrage that a person who pays P17 million in 1999 for a property now worth P1 billion – ang galing namang negosyante niyan (what an exceptional entrepreneur)!"
Erlinda was invited to the hearing but Kimsfer said his mother was in Hong Kong for a medical treatment. The Senate blue ribbon subcommittee cited Chong in contempt, and ordered her to attend the next hearing. (READ: Who is Erlinda Chong?)
Binay also skipped the hearing, again dismissing it as a political “drama.” The opposition standard-bearer was campaigning in Pangasinan.
The third child of Chong, Kimsfer denied that the family stood as dummies of Binay. “Our businesses are all legal, and legitimate.”
Trillanes was peeved with Kimsfer's denials. He retorted, “Hanggang nasa kulungan si VP Binay, ime-maintain ninyo iyan (Will you maintain that statement even after VP Binay is behind bars)?
The Chongs own the mini-mall now in the property, which includes Chowking and KFC fastfood restaurants.
They are also listed as incorporators of Millennium Food Chains Corp. Binay's children Senator Nancy Binay, Makati Representative Abigail Binay, and Makati Mayor Junjun Binay are the other incorporators but Kimsfer said the Binays became part of the company even before they joined politics.
The Chongs were also supposedly behind Cups & Mugs Kitchenette, Makati's favored cake supplier, and the Chong couple also operates the canteens at the Makati City Hall and Ospital ng Makati.
The senators said that the land deal violated Presidential Proclamations 2475 and 518. The first order reserved the property for housing areas for military personnel and their dependents. The second proclamation allowed it to be disposed to bonafide occupants but not exceeding 300 square meters.
Based on Mercado's previous testimony, Chong bought the property after Meriras Realty, a company put up by Mercado and former Makati City engineer Nelson Irasga, transferred lease rights to her. Binay is allegedly a hidden partner of Meriras.
“We are outraged that a rich person was the one who bought this land from a military reservation,” Pimentel said after the hearing.
“They removed the land from the military reservation because it was occupied and supposed to be for illegal settlers. They made the land alienable. How come the one benefiting is not a landless person but someone rich, who became even richer?”
'Violating spirit of the law'
Officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) testified that the deal was legal. The DENR and Meriras executed the contract to lease the property to Chong, a resident of Guadalupe, Makati.
The DENR cited the Public Land Act, which gives the lessee of public land the option of purchasing the property.
This was the same argument the DENR invoked in 1998 in approving Chong's notice of application. A complaint was then filed before the Ombudsman questioning the sale of the property but the agency under then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto dismissed it.
Pimentel contested the DENR's view. “The opinion of the DENR resource persons will have to be double-checked because I am sure the spirit of the law is not for that. Under the Public Land Act, you dispose public land not so that those who are already wealthy can purchase it, and even earn from it.”
Retired General Alexander Costales of the Philippine Army 525 Engineering Battalion testified that his battalion was ordered to move its gate farther back to give the property to the Makati city government.
“Vice Mayor Mercado said it would be used by the local government, which we did not question anymore because all we had to do was move the entrance backwards. It was subdivided and eventually I learned it was awarded to the other members of the Armed Forces,” Costales said.
'Dummy or not, still violation'
Mercado said that the property was supposedly meant for a barangay complex with a health center, police department, and fire department.
“Dalang-dala ako ng damdamin na magkaroon ng magandang development. Kaya lang paglipas ng ilang taon na siguro nakita ni VP Binay na napakaganda ng future ng lote na iyon, nawala na ang interes [para sa public development]. Napunta na sa kanya ang interes,” Mercado said.
(I was carried away by my emotions to have this good development. But as the years passed, VP Binay saw that the lot had a very good future. He lost interest [for public development]. It became his personal interest.)
Mercado said that he, Irasga, and Binay together founded Meriras – a contraction of the combined first syllables of Mercado and Irasga.
Yet Binay and Irasga had a falling out in 1998 when Binay reneged on his promise to endorse the engineer for Makati mayor. Binay instead fielded his wife, doctor Elenita Binay, to succeed him while he sat out his re-election ban after 3 terms as mayor.
“So what happened was VP Binay chose the Chong family as partners. That's how it started,” Mercado said.
Mercado though stressed that the Chongs were legitimate entrepreneurs, and were only tainted because of their association with the Binays.
Pimentel admitted that it was only Mercado's testimony that linked Binay to Chong.
Still, the senator said that whether or not it's proven that Chong was Binay's dummy, the land deal remains anomalous.
“Remember that a military reservation is inalienable. It should be beyond the commerce of man. Because of a presidential proclamation, it was allowed to be within the commerce of man, the property of a private person. But it should not be a commercial property so that is a huge violation.”
Pimentel urged government agencies to review the validity of Chong's ownership of the land. – Rappler.com