UCPB to 'exhaust all legal remedies' to keep shares in CIIF, SMC

MANILA, Philippines ­ ­– The United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) will “exhaust all possible legal remedies” to retain its rights to its shares in the CIIF Oil Mills and in a portion of the sequestered San Miguel Corporation (SMC) shares.

UCPB made the statement on Wednesday, September 16, a day after the  Supreme Court's (SC) dismissed the bank's petition for declaratory relief or request for a legal clarification over its rights to its minority shares of stock in the Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) and its holding companies, and in SMC.

The bank said it "respects" the SC decision but "UCPB will continue to exhaust all possible legal remedies to affirm the Bank’s position that since the Bank used its own funds, and not coco levy funds, to invest in the oil mills and SMC shares, it is excluded from the earlier SC coco levy decision."

The SC unanimously dismissed the separate petitions filed by UCPB and United Coconut Planters Life Assurance Corporation (Cocolife) seeking to assert their right over a portion of the 24% block shares in SMC registered in the names of the CIIF and its holding companies.

The SC had earlier ordered the 24% block of shares, with an estimated worth of P71 billion ($1.519 billion), to be returned to the government on the basis of being part of the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses. (READ: Supreme Court stops coco levy executive orders)

UCPB asserted that it has rights to its minority shares of stock in the CIIF Oil Mills, and indirectly, in an 11% portion of the sequestered SMC shares, which the SC ruled to be owned by the government, for the benefit of coconut farmers and the  coconut industry. (READ: Farmers urge SC to make decision on Coco Levy case final)

In its statement, UCPB clarified it is not claiming the investments that the bank made as administrator of the CIIF. 

"UCPB would like to clarify that it is not claiming any part of the coco levy funds or assets. The Bank respectfully recognizes that these are government-owned," it said.

UCPB added: "Likewise, it is not claiming the investments that the Bank made as Administrator of the Coconut Industry investment Fund. Instead, it is merely protecting its own shareholders, including the majority government shareholder, and preserving bank assets which were used to invest in the oil mills and SMC shares."

Dismissed

On December 2012, UCPB and Cocolife separately filed petitions for declaratory relief before the Makati RTC against the CIIF companies and the Presidential Commission on Good Goverment (PCGG).

Cocolife raised similar claims of ownership in the said companies and shares of stock by virtue of its being a stockholder, owning 146,610,567 UCPB shares.

In a 30-page decision penned by Associate Justice Martin Villarama Jr, the High Court en banc granted the PCGG petition seeking to set aside the 2013 orders issued by Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Makati City Branch 59 Presiding Judge Winlove Dumayas, denying its motion to dismiss the consolidated petitions for declaratory relief filed by UCPB and Cocolife.

The SC held that the trial court had no jurisdiction to hear and resolve suits involving sequestered coco levy assets and coco levy funds.

Affirmed

The SC decision also pointed out that the issue of ownership of the sequestered CIIF companies and CIIF SMC block of shares was directly resolved by the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan in 2004. It was affirmed by the SC in its January 2012 decision.

The High Court sustained the Sandiganbayan's decision which held that the CIIF companies and the CIIP block of SMC shares are public funds necessarily owned by the government.

The SC held that the funds should be used only by the government for the benefit of the coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry.

It added that in another case decided on November 27, 2012, the SC affirmed the Sandiganbayan's decision nullifying the shares of stock transfer to businessman Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.

In the same ruling, SC held that the coconut levy funds partake of the nature of taxes and can only be used for public purpose, and importantly, for the development, rehabilitation, and stabilization of the coconut industry.

Feeble attempts

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima welcomed the SC decision.

“I commend the SC its diligence in preventing another legal machination to frustrate its previous rulings declaring the fund as one established for the benefit of coconut farmers, including those used by UCPB to purchase SMC shares," De Lima said on Wednesday.

She added that the PCGG should also be commended for blocking the move of UCPB and Cocolife.

With this development, the justice chief said all coco levy funds, including the shares in SMC and their proceeds not yet transferred to the National Treasury, should now be transferred without further delay.

De Lima, however, warned the public to be vigilant since there is still one more legal challenge filed with the High Court. 

In a 33-page petition filed on May 20, the Confederation of Coconut Farmers Organizations of the Philippines led by Charles Avila accused President Benigno Aquino II of committing grave abuse of authority when he issued Executive Orders 179 and 180 related to the coco levy funds, without the approval of Congress and the Sandiganbayan.

In June, the SC temporarily stopped the implementation of the EOs 179 and 180.

EO 179 provides administrative guidelines for the inventory and privatization of all coco levy assets, including but not limited to the shares of stock in UCPBCIIF Companies and CIIF Holding Companies, as well as the 5,500,000 San Miguel Corporation shares registered in the name of the PCGG.

EO 180 ordered the immediate transfer and reconveyance of the coconut levy assets to the government and their for the Integrated Coconut Industry Roadmap and the Roadmap for Coco Levy. (READ: Aquino signs EOs on utilization of coco levy funds)

De Lima said these cases are “last-ditch, feeble attempts by powerful interest groups to once again rob our coconut farmers of what has already been duly declared to be theirs by the SC.”

“Our coconut farmers have been robbed long enough. It is now time for them to truly benefit from their decades of toil through scholarships, trainings, equipment, and other support services under a PCA roadmap for the utilization of the coco levy fund,” she added. – Rappler.com

$1 = P 46.71