MANILA, Philippines – Three senatorial candidates who belong to big business families topped ad spending on traditional media before the campaign period even started, data from Nielsen Ad Intel showed.
Former public works secretary Mark Villar and Senators Sherwin Gatchalian and Joel Villanueva each ran advertisements worth more than P1 billion from January 2021 to January 2022.
Nielsen’s Ad Intel service provides monitored ad spending of candidates across TV, radio, print, and outdoor platforms. The amounts were based on published rate cards and did not reflect discounts that the candidates may have obtained from broadcast networks or publishers.
Villar and Villanueva’s families were both awarded franchises to run television stations, just one of several businesses they operate. The Villars are also among the country’s biggest real estate developers, while the Gatchalian family has interests in hotels and casinos, real estate, and mining.
Other members of the three candidates’ families also occupy various government positions.
Political science professor Ela Atienza said the potential conflicts of interest are a serious concern.
“We have had many cases before when senators and members of the House of Representatives [belonged to] families [that] have business interests…. Most of the time, they do protect the interest or push for the interest of their family businesses,” she said.
Michael Yusingco, a research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government, said it’s not wrong for elected officials to own businesses, but they have to show that their personal interests do not affect how they perform their duties as elected officials.
Even if senators or aspiring lawmakers do not own shares in family businesses, Yusingco said they are not automatically cleared of having conflicts of interest. “We all know they are connected and may be influenced,” Yusingco said.
“[The three candidates] have not overcome the conflicts of interest they are burdened with as people who are connected with big businesses…. This is the red flag,” he said.
Gatchalian and Villanueva bought ad space and airtime worth more than P100 million beginning June and September 2021, respectively.
Villar started airing ads in June 2021, when he appeared with his father, former Senate president Manuel Villar Jr., in ads. He aired his own ads beginning August 2021.
Taguig Representative Alan Peter Cayetano, who previously considered a presidential bid, topped overall ad spending in traditional media before the filing of candidacies in October 2021. He slowed down on his spending after deciding to run for the Senate instead.
Cayetano ranked eighth among top spenders during the 13-month period, following presidential candidates Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, and Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson.
Cayetano was followed by senatorial candidate and former Makati mayor Jejomar Binay, presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., and senatorial candidate and Antique Representative Loren Legarda.
Villars: TV franchise operator, property developer
The Villars are among the richest and most entrenched political families in the Philippines.
Manuel Villar Jr. was the country’s second richest man in 2021, with a net worth of $6.7 billion according to Forbes magazine. He ran for president in 2010 but lost. He had since concentrated on the family business.
If Mark wins in May, he will join his mother, Senator Cynthia Aguilar Villar, in the legislative chamber. His sister, Camille, sits as representative of the lone district of Las Piñas and is seeking reelection.
In January 2022, the Villar-owned Advanced Media Broadcasting System (AMBS) was awarded by the National Telecommunications Commission provisional authority to operate a channel previously owned by ABS-CBN, Channel 16. This digital channel is paired with the analog Channel 2, also previously owned by the Lopez-led broadcast network.
The Villar mother and daughter were both members of Congress when the franchise was approved. Mark was public works secretary while his wife Emmeline served as an undersecretary at the Department of Justice from 2018 to early this year.
Based on the joint 2019 Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) Mark filed with his wife, the senatorial candidate had business interest only in Maxihome Land and Development Corp., which he acquired in 2009. The spouses declared a net worth of P1.4 billion.
The firm is involved in the real estate rental business, according to business intelligence site Dun & Bradstreet.
Before joining the House of Representatives in 2010, however, Mark was the managing director of publicly listed Vista Land & Lifescapes Inc, the country’s biggest home builder. He served as representative of Las Piñas for two terms from 2010 to 2016. He won a third term in the 2019 elections, but he resigned to become President Rodrigo Duterte’s public works secretary.
Aside from Vista Land, the Villar business family has four other listed firms: grocery chain operator AllDay Marts Inc., department store chain operator AllHome Corp., Vistamalls Inc., which operates malls nationwide, and Golden MV Holdings Inc., a memorial lot developer.
Both AllDay and AllHome were listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) in the last three years.
Senator Cynthia Villar herself has faced questions about a possible conflict of interest because of her position as chair of the Senate committee on environment, natural resources, and climate change.
In an earlier PCIJ report, Haribon Foundation advocacy officer Samson Pedragosa said the delay in the passage of the National Land Use Act, which would rationalize classification of land and determine where housing projects would be allowed, might have benefited the family business.
Mark Villar did not respond to PCIJ’s request for comment.
Villanueva: TV franchise operator
Villanueva’s family runs Zoe Broadcasting Network (ZBN), the broadcast media arm of the Jesus Is Lord Church, which his evangelist father, Eddie Villanueva, previously headed.
The older Villanueva is a member of the House of Representatives, representing the Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) party list.
ZBN or Zoe TV has been home to several programs produced by the ABS-CBN network after Congress rejected its application for a new franchise in 2020.
ZBN inked a deal with ABS-CBN in October 2020, allowing the latter to air its shows on the channel that has since been rebranded as A2Z channel.
The cost of the deal, which was made less than a year after the ABS-CBN shutdown, has not been disclosed to the public. ZBN was paid by its old blocktime partner, GMA Network, at least P100 million each year from 2012 to 2019.
In July 2016, less than a month after Villanueva was elected senator, ZBN was granted a legislative franchise to operate for another 25 years by Congress.
The senator is also a shareholder of J&G International Investment Corp., Agape Foods Corp., and JV Agape ZOE Inc., based on his 2016 SALN. He declared a net worth of P21 million. He also declared cash worth P1.8 million and loans worth P29.2 million.
In response to PCIJ’s request for comment, Villanueva said he would submit “full, true, and itemized statements of contributions and expenditures (SOCEs) as required by election laws.” He did not say how his campaign ads were funded.
Gatchalian: Mining, hotels, and casinos
The Gatchalian family has been in local politics in Valenzuela City for decades. Before winning a Senate seat in 2016, Sherwin was either mayor or representative of the city in the northern part of Metro Manila.
His brothers Rex and Wes are the mayor and representative of the first district of Valenzuela City, respectively.
But the Gatchalians were businessmen first before they became politicians. The family is the majority owner of Wellex Industries Inc. (WIN), where Sherwin has a 9% stake, according to the company’s annual reports published on the PSE website.
WIN was the only company Sherwin declared as business interest in his 2017 SALN. He declared a net worth of P88 million. He also declared P3.8 million in cash in banks.
WIN is the direct owner of the Plastic City Industrial Corp., a plastic manufacturing plant in Valenzuela City.
The senator himself faced questions over his position in favor of a bill legalizing the operations of waste-to-energy facilities (WTEs). Break Free From Plastic, an organization pushing for the reduction of plastic use, said plastic manufacturers would be the “real winners” if the law was passed.
The bill seeks to exempt WTEs from the incineration ban mandated by Republic Act No. 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act. Gatchalian is the chair of the Senate committee on energy.
The senator’s parents own five other listed companies with interests in hotels and casinos, real estate, and mining:
- Acesite Hotel Corp.,
- Forum Pacific Inc.,
- Metro Alliance Holdings and Equities Corp.,
- Philippine Estates Corp.
- Waterfront Philippines Inc. (WPI)
WPI was granted a license to operate a casino in the Entertainment City in 2020, more than a decade after it filed a case against state regulator and operator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor).
Casinos have to be granted a gaming license by Pagcor. WPI previously accused Pagcor of failing to act on its license application despite submitting all requirements and fees in 2008.
Wellex Mining Corp., a mining firm headed by Sherwin’s father, William, was one of the firms ordered closed by the controversial audit conducted by former environment secretary Gina Lopez.
The mining company’s motion for reconsideration was granted in 2018. But as of December 2021, its mineral production sharing agreement with the government remained suspended.
Gatchalian’s office told PCIJ they could not attend to PCIJ’s questions until the end of March.
What the law says
Under Republic Act No. 6713, conflict of interest arises when a public official is a “member of a board, an officer, or a substantial stockholder of a private corporation,” and the interest of such corporation or business may be opposed to or affected by the faithful performance of official duty.
Atienza said the Senate should be investigating its members for possible violations of this provision, but said the legislative chamber did not have a good record in disciplining its members.
“They can be very strict when it comes to performing oversight functions. For example, they can investigate agencies on how they use their budget, etc., but they are not very strict in disciplining their members,” Atienza said.
Voters in the coming elections should be made aware of these potential conflicts of interest, said Yusingco.
“We need [to help] the public recognize that conflict of interest is a problem, that principles like ‘Public office is public interest’ are important,” Yusingco said. – Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism/Rappler.com
Illustration by Luigi Almuena