A Mormon church, Binay dummies, and a land scam

Conclusion

MANILA, Philippines – To go by former vice mayor Ernesto Mercado’s exposés and allegations, the Binay family, as the longest reigning political dynasty in Metro Manila, not only raided the city government’s coffers but also acquired parcels of land in Makati through their dummies.

While Vice President Jejomar Binay's does not appear in the records, the fingerprints of his alleged dummies appear in forensic investigations.

Such is the case of the controversial 8,877-square-meter Comembo property which was formerly part of a military reservation area and a housing project for military personnel and their dependents.

How it landed in private hands, from being leased by Meriras Realty Development Corporation, allegedly a company controlled by Binay through dummies, and with Erlinda Chong, who is the cake supplier for Makati’s senior citizens, is one classic example of land grabbing by Binay’s cohorts.

From a residential lot, the Comembo property is now a thriving business complex, valued roughly at P1 billion.

This is a far cry from the P17-million initial appraisal value in 1998, when Chong, who was never a resident there, sought to have the public land patented and titled to her name.

Three years after securing the title for the lot, Chong sold a portion of the property to the Mormon Church to the tune of P130.55 million, or a windfall of P113.55 million from her P17-million original purchase price.

But that is going ahead of the story.

Sold at a low price

After Chong was able to secure approval to have the land titled to her name, a certain Bernard Bernardo filed a complaint before the Ombudsman, alleging collusion and violations of the law by officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to enable Chong, who is not a bonafide beneficiary, to acquire the lot.

A fact-finding probe and investigation by the graft, legal monitoring and prosecution division of the Ombudsman concluded that 5 DENR officials and the city assessor of Makati should be charged criminally and administratively for the land sale.

Among the significant findings were that the questioned property should not have been sold to Chong since she is not a bonafide beneficiary, in violation of Proclamation 518.

Assuming too that she was qualified, the property should have been appraised at a higher amount – P7,500 per square meter instead of only P2,000 per square meter. The lower appraisal resulted in a disadvantageous contract for the government.

At P7,500 per square meter zonal value by the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the property should have been sold at P66.577 million instead of P17 million.

Moreover, the DENR appraisal committee failed to take into consideration the improvements introduced by Meriras to the questioned property, which should have increased the valuation of the lot.

Meriras said it had poured in P42 million in lot improvements.

But a review of a separate Ombudsman graft panel cleared the respondents of any liabilities.

The review panel sustained that the P17 million appraised value was already advantageous to the government considering that surrounding areas were being sold at P30 per square meter.

Moreover, they gave weight to the testimony of Makati City assessor Mario Badillo that the approved valuation of lots similarly situated was fixed at P1,000 per square meter, lower than the P2,000 per square meter pricing for the 8,877-square-meter property.

As to Chong’s qualification, the review panel said Chong was qualified under the Public Land Act, which allows a lessee tthe option to purchase the leased public land.

Divided Ombudsman

The graft panel’s review report divided the Ombudsman higher-ups.

Former Ombudsman director and retired Deputy Ombudsman for Visayas Pelagio Apostol and retired Assistant Ombudsman Aberlardo Aportadera Jr both disapproved the findings of the graft panel and pushed for the prosecution of the respondents.

In his separate memorandum, Apostol said the DENR appraisal committee abused their authority by failing to secure the best deal for the government. “In the disposition of public property, the primary consideration is that the government always gets the best price,” Apostol said.

Apostol also faulted the graft panel for applying the Public Land Act to Chong, controverting the intent of Proclamation 518 to provide land for the landless.

“The claimed limitation under the Public Land Act is merely directory. It is intended to support for the landless and the underprivileged. It was never meant to apply to sale of commercial lands to affluent and moneyed members of society,” Apostol argued.

Apostol also took issue with the fact that the improvements introduced by Meriras should have been sequestered by the government since the lease contract had been essentially terminated when Chong converted her lease application to a sales application.

The lease contract is akin to a build-operate-transfer scheme where the lessee would have to turn over any structure or improvement on the leased land after the termination of the contract.

He also pointed out that Meriras Realty had been renting the land for only P9,157 a month despite the large area involved.

More importantly, Apostol pointed out that the alleged bidding was just a charade, with the notice of approval of Chong’s sales application being issued way ahead of the notice of sale.

“The publication in the unknown newspapers is merely a belated attempt to comply with the requirements of the law. Moreover, there was no proper notice to the public so as to attract the greatest number of interested parties,” Apostol said.

But the two dissenting opinions of these two Ombudsman higher-ups were singularly overturned by Ombudsman Aniano Desierto.

In a handwritten note to the graft panel’s report, Desierto said he “fully agree[s] with the panel of investigators” after considering that “a number of established facts negate manifest partiality, gross inexcusable negligence and bad faith” by the respondents in carrying out the sale.

MORMON CHURCH. The Mormons end up buying part of the Comembo property. Photo by Jay Ganzon/Rappler

MORMON CHURCH. The Mormons end up buying part of the Comembo property.

Photo by Jay Ganzon/Rappler

Enter the Mormon Church

In 2002, or two years after the Ombudsman cleared the DENR officials, the National Capital Region-DENR issued the patent and title for the 8,877-square-meter lot to Chong.

The patent and title had been issued only 3 three years since she supposedly became the new lessee of the property.

In 2004, Chong applied for a new land survey on the property, subdividing it into 3 lots. In August 2007, she again applied for a new land survey, this time subdividing the lots into 4. Both land surveys were conducted by geodetic engineer Ariel Olivar, who is closely identified with Mercado, Binay’s former ally and now arch-enemy.

Of the 4 divided lots, Lot 1 was the biggest with 3,730 square meters.

In October 2007, Chong and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or more commonly known as the Mormons, purchased Lot 1 to the tune of P130.55 million.

An additional P1 million was included in the purchase price as cost in clearing the land. With the sale to the Mormons, what remains under Chongs’ name are 3 lots, with a total area of 5,147 square meters.

Meanwhile, the original lessee to the controversial property, Meriras Realty, also underwent changes in ownership.

By the time of the sale of a parcel of the property to the Mormons, two alleged Binay dummies, Gerardo Limlimgan and his wife Marguerite Lichnock, held 50% of the stock ownership. Chong and her Chinese husband, Man Bun Chong, held 25% total shares.

The Vice President has publicly acknowledged Limlingan as a dear friend. He and his wife Lichnock are behind Omni security and janitorial company, which bagged more than P1-billion worth of contracts from the Makati City government.

Limlingan and Chong have snubbed Senate invites for them to appear in the hearings on the alleged hidden wealth of the Binays and the alleged anomalies in the award of contracts to favored companies. In his testimony in the Senate, Mercado said it was Limlingan – and not Chong – who negotiated for the sale of the lot to the Mormons.

For this story, Rappler sought Chong’s side. We were able to contact Cups and Mugs Kitchenette and were told that Chong could not accommodate our request for interview.

Rappler also sought an interview with the Mormon Church on the circumstances of the sale. Mormon Church public affairs director Haidi Fajardo begged off from any interview, citing the ongoing Senate probe.

Missing documents

In previous separate interviews, Mercado said that apart from Binay’s failed promise to anoint former Makati city engineer Nelson Irasga  as his successor for the mayoral post in Makati, the sale of the portion of the Comembo property further widened the gap between the two.

Binay allegedly withheld Irasga’s share in the sale. However, after Mercado had appeared in the Senate, Binay’s camp scrambled to appease Irasga.

Irasga has also ignored the  Blue Ribbon sub-committee summons to appear in the hearing.

The Mormon Church, in a letter to the Senate Blue Ribbon, expressed willingness to shed light on the circumstances of the sale but asked for more time to reconstruct the sequence of events. The controversial acquisition of the property simply won’t rest.

Former Binay ally lawyer Renato Bondal is preparing fresh charges to be filed before the Ombudsman regarding the alleged irregular purchase of the former public land, insisting it should not have been sold to Chong.

He’s hoping that Mercado’s fresh revelations in the Senate will finally provide justice to the military personnel who may have been duped. – Rappler.com