The secrets of Ruby Tuason

 

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Ruby Tuason knows a lot of secrets. The former social secretary of former president Joseph Estrada, she is said to have been under pressure from family members to turn herself in. (READ: Ruby Tuason in DOJ custody)

She faces two plunder charges – one for the pork barrel scam and the other for the Malampaya Fund scam where she supposedly got the biggest windfall with P242 million. With these charges before the Ombudsman, the prospects of Tuason being extradited is not far-fetched. Corruption is an extraditable offense.

Should Tuason decide to tell what she knows, Levito Baligod, lawyer for whistleblowers in the pork barrel scam, said it would be an important testimony. (READ: Ex-Erap aide wants to turn state witness)

Baligod said, “Her testimony [can be] enough to pin down the three,” referring to senators Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, and his chief of staff Jessica Lucila "Gigi" Reyes. (READ: Ruby Tuason to back pork whistleblowers)

Indeed, she could be the crucial key that could directly link Estrada, Enrile, and Reyes to the pork barrel scam. While the paper trail shows that Estrada – and in the case of Enrile, through Reyes – channeled pork barrel to bogus non-governmental organizations controlled by Napoles, none of the dozen whistleblowers, including Benhur Luy, could testify that the lawmakers personally received the money from Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel scam. (READ: Erap: Jinggoy can defend himself)

Like Reyes, Tuason sneaked out of the country after the pork barrel scandal broke out. Bureau of Immigration records show she left August 26 on a flight bound for Hongkong en route to the United States. She arrived in Manila Friday morning, February 7.

Past collector

She has had dealings with Napoles herself, having gone to her office at the Discovery Suites in Ortigas. One such time was on Sept 2, 2004.

One of Napoles’ staff was instructed to get P1.5 million from a vault where they kept the petty cash, which, according to Benhur Luy, was meant precisely for such visits. They had clients before that required Napoles to draw out millions of pesos taken from the vault. They knew the woman came there with the same purpose.

As the record keeper of such transactions, Benhur Luy faithfully recorded the woman’s name and the corresponding amount she got. In his ledger, he identified her as Ruby Tuason.

Tuason supposedly got P1.5 million in alleged commissions for a P37.5 million pork barrel allocation of Senator Jinggoy Estrada. It wouldn't be the first and last entry. And it wouldn't be under Estrada’s name alone.

On Feb 10, 2005, Tuason went back to the JLN office to receive P4.2 million in cash for supposed rebates in Estrada’s pork barrel downloaded to the Department of Agriculture. The pork amounted to P30 million. Her name would resurface in 2008 in Luy’s ledger, where she alternated with Estrada’s appointments secretary, Pauline Labayen, in receiving rebates on Estrada’s behalf.

It turned out that for the years 2006 and 2007, Tuason was acting as Napoles’ conduit to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, doing the same task she did for Estrada. She continued with this role for Enrile in 2008.

Based on Luy’s ledger, Tuason was getting Enrile’s rebates ranging from P1.9 to P20 million. At least one transaction, involving two tranches of P10 million was confirmed by bank records. (The Anti-Money Laundering Council confirmed this during its investigation. The AMLC traced a total of P20-million credit memo transactions recorded on her Union Bank of the Philippines account.)

Still, there were occasions when she would go directly to Napoles’ residence to pick up cash for Estrada, Enrile, and later for the latter’s chief of staff, Gigi Reyes.

The last time Tuason received money from Napoles, at least to the knowledge of the whistleblowers, was in 2011. Marina Sula, a former janitress and the finance clerk of JLN Corporation, said in her testimony that she delivered bundles of cash to Tuason’s residence on orders of her boss. 

“She met us in her home and we handed to her the bag of money. I was certain I was bringing money because Madame Napoles gave a prior instruction, saying: ‘Baby, dalhin mo ito kay Ma’am Ruby mo. Mag-ingat kayo ha. Pera ito.’” (Baby, bring this to your Ma’am Ruby. Be careful. There’s money in there.) 

Jinggoy poll donor

Described by those who had met her as “refined, well-heeled, with good social graces, a socialite and a fashion plate,” Tuason was called by one newspaper society columnist a “high society doyenne” when she celebrated her 60th birthday in 2009.

Belonging to the matrons of pedigree, Tuason hobnobbed with the rich and the powerful, politicians and businessmen alike. 

Her second husband, the late Butch Tuason, was first cousin to former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo and a close friend of Estrada. Butch Tuason was named Philippine Sports Commission chair during Estrada’s time, while she was appointed social secretary with the rank of undersecretary.

A profile of her, published in the Manila Standard in July 1999, was suffused with superlatives: “A gem in the Estrada administration’s proverbial crown,” “a very dignified, chic, soignée efficient dynamo” who “at all times [was] coiffed and groomed impeccably.”

Two former Estrada officials we talked to say she was highly efficient and the news story backed it up. “She doesn’t forget her p’s and q’s, she sends flowers with handwritten thank-you cards and souvenirs. Ruby Tuason embodies the grace under pressure and serenity that many women strive to attain while advancing their careers – all while getting the job done to their and their bosses’ attention.”

The Tuasons have always known the Estradas and may have helped raise campaign funds for Joseph Estrada when he sought the presidency in 1998. Ruby belonged to the MARE or the Masa ang Riwasa ni Erap group founded by Estrada’s wife, Dr Loi Ejercito Estrada, representing the women’s group that supported Estrada’s candidacy. (After Estrada won, MARE was reinvented as a foundation with the supposed mission of assisting the President and the First Lady in planning and implementing programs for the Filipino people).

So close were Tuason to the Estradas that when Jinggoy ran for a second term in the Senate in 2010, Ruby gave a generous donation of P2 million. Another person who supposedly got cash from Napoles, Johnny Ng, gave P3 million.

Well-heeled, well-connected

Well-entrenched politically, Ruby Tuason is also highly connected in business circles. “She is particularly close to Ricky Razon. She is the go-to girl if you want to get in touch with this businessman. In the process, she helped some politicians in raising funds for elections,” a former Estrada Cabinet secretary said. This was confirmed by a separate source connected to the Ramos administration.

In fact, Tuason and Razon were so close she set up a high-end jewelry store in one of the hotels operated by him, two sources said. However, public documents available showed Tuason was not one of the incorporators of the jewelry shop.

Her name might not appear in this case, but a check with the Securities and Exchange Commission showed her interests in diverse business enterprises.

In 1988, Tuason, along with Enrile’s half sister Armida Siguion Reyna, put up movie company Ramco Film Productions Inc with a  capitalization of P1 million. Three years later however the company folded up. That same year, she also put up Delcas Related Properties Corporation, with family members as incorporators. As of 2011, the company was still active, but was in the red based on its latest financial statement.

In 2005, she put up the advertising company Omark Media and Signages Inc with family members as incorporators. The company however has not submitted any financial statements. In 2008, she was among the incorporators of the real estate firm Palawan Golden Shores Inc. SEC records showed its current assets just above P800,000.

But it was in 2009 when Ruby embarked on the P80-million-capitalized Rubysons Inc, which is supposed to be engaged in micro-business activities. It is a family business, with her and her sons from her first marriage, as incorporators. The company however has not submitted any financial statements.

Black Nazarene

With her link to politicians, Tuason was a natural magnet for Napoles. A former friend of Napoles said the pork barrel queen is quite adept at identifying and befriending people with connections for her money-making ventures.

How did they meet?

One story we gathered said the two met because of the iconic Black Nazarene of Quiapo church. “Tuason wanted to get in touch with the one in charge of the Black Nazarene. She must have heard that Napoles is a friend of Msgr Josefino* Ramirez,” one source said. Ramirez was parish priest in Binondo before being transferred to the Quiapo parish from 2004-2007.

Accounts by Luy showed that the Black Nazarene was regularly brought to Napoles’ residence, courtesy of Ramirez. The priest has not denied this. Ramirez was president of the Magdalena Lim Luy Charity Foundation In the Service of the Divine Mercy, a foundation set up by Napoles in honor of her late mother.

Another source said it was through Tuason’s late husband Butch that the two met. Butch was a regular habitué of Gentleman’s Club, a bar and restaurant located at the Discovery Suite’s 22nd floor. In fact, it was Butch who first got cash amounting to P1.5 million for Enrile’s pork barrel in 2004. 

Financial squeeze

Apart from family pressure, Tuason is also feeling the financial squeeze brought by her involvement in the pork barrel scam.

Based on Court of Appeals records, more than 80 of her bank accounts under different banks were frozen upon the request of the AMLC, including those she shared with family members and relatives.

Her assets in 3 financial institutions were also locked up based on the order of the CA.

Before the CA freeze order, Tuason began divesting her properties in the US, in an apparent move to secure these from forfeiture proceedings.

A real estate property she bought at the Las Vegas Country club in 2008 was transferred to her son Francis Tuason on Sept 5, 2013. In the quit claim that she signed, Francis gave his mailing address as 8920 Lansberry Court, Las Vegas.

A separate report by ABS-CBN news said that the Lansberry property is under the name of Henry Joseph Laygo, who is Tuason’s son from her first marriage.

A source who is a major player in the pork barrel case said Tuason has been sending feelers about her desire to cooperate with authorities. “She wants to come clean and divulge what she knew on the scam. I think it’s the social stigma and the shame to her family."

“But it should be remorse with restitution. She must agree to return whatever they have robbed from the people,” the source said. – with reports from Rey Santos Jr and Ryan Macasero/Rappler 

*Editor's Note: We mistakenly named Monsignor Sonny Ramirez as being closely linked with Janet Lim Napoles. Our previous stories had identified the priest as Msgr Josefino Ramirez. We have made the correction.