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Battle for Camp John Hay

Call it the battle of the full-page ads, with a side skirmish of press releases. A few weeks ago, the people—or better yet the advertising departments of the major newspapers—were treated to a series of tit-for-tat full-page advertisements airing the “sides” of two parties in contention over rights to Camp John Hay in Baguio.

On one side is the Bases Conversion and Development Authority or BCDA, the government entity assigned to oversee the conversion by the private sector of former military bases into private, mixed-use developments. On the other is Camp John Hay Development Corp. (CJHDevco), the private concern leasing the former American “R&R” destination in Baguio.

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Adding color to the war for public opinion is a skirmish of legal suits, beginning with the filing of a libel complaint against the BCDA board of directors. The complaint stems from a public notice published last April announcing that CJHDevco was being ousted from the premises of Camp John Hay for failure to pay the required rent for all of 10 years. The corporation sued, alleging that the board, by announcing its move against it, had tarnished its reputation within the business community and among the larger public.

In reply, BCDA maintained that the complaint was “malicious and baseless,” adding that the suit was just a “smokescreen” to cover up the real issue: CJHDevco’s “failure and refusal to pay rentals to the government for their use of Camp John Hay.”

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Indeed, the accumulated rentals due have reached a total of P3 billion, an incredible amount that ordinary Juans and Juanas like you and me would not be able to get away with in the real world divorced from high finance and political connections. Would anyone have been able to welsh on five years’ rent and still insist on staying put? In this country, it seems you have to owe the government big-time to earn the right to contest its decisions and even take out full-page ads attacking it.

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The latest encounter in this long drawn-out battle is a petition filed by lawyer Howard Calleja calling for the ouster of BCDA president and CEO Arnel Casanova. Calleja sent the letter to both the Office of the President and the Office of the Solicitor General, claiming that Casanova’s assumption of the office was irregular since, he said, the position of chairman and president should be held by only one man, in this instance BCDA Chair Felicito “Tong” Payumo.

When I had dinner with both Casanova and BCDA board member Mel Alonzo, they ventured that the letter was very probably a ploy “to drag Malacañang into the dispute.” In which case, asserted Casanova, who was personally recruited by P-Noy to look after government interests in Camp John Hay and other properties administered by BCDA, “they are working under a misconception because the President is well aware of the issues in Camp John Hay.”

In fact, asserts Alonzo, the BCDA board seems to be precisely composed of individuals who are palaban (feisty), the better to protect State interests in dealing with the politically influential.

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One name connected to CJHDevco should be familiar to the public, especially to the hardworking mostly middle-class couples who, believing in the claims of the College Assurance Plan that it would guarantee tuition payments for the college education of their children, invested hard-earned money in these education plans, only to be left “holding the bag” when CAP claimed insolvency and refused to pay for the college tuition of the remaining “scholars.”

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It seems astounding to these parents—and yes, I am one of them—that Robert John “Bob” Sobrepeña should still be able to hold his head up high, never mind thumbing his nose at government bodies, after shattering their dreams of worry-free education for their children.

Sobrepeña is believed to have used the millions that CAP raised to invest in such ventures as the Edsa MRT-3 project, the Southwoods golf course, and CJHDevco. Sobrepeña, says a writer, was known as the “wonder boy of business” during the Ramos administration, granted concessional loans and let off the hook when CAP investors began suing for their children’s future.

In fact, during the Ramos years and in the subsequent Estrada and Arroyo administrations, Sobrepeña was still able to wriggle out of his legal obligations. In one instance, I was told, when the BCDA board threatened to foreclose on CJHDevco, they received a phone call from the previous occupant of Malacañang and told to go easy on Sobrepeña and associates.

And that is how CJHDevco has accumulated an astounding P3 billion debt to government. That is P3 billion pesos he owes us taxpayers.

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And it’s not as if CJHDevco has been in penury all these years.

When it was awarded the 25-year lease to Camp John Hay, the company built a hotel-condominium called “The Manor,” another structure known as “Camp John Hay Suites” as well as individual “log cabin cottages” and either leased or sold units to individuals. Even as it was earning on these investments, the company refused to honor its commitments, claiming several failures on the part of government. In late 2008, it refused outright to make any payments. Then it requested to defer payments for leases incurred in 1997 and 1998, followed by three restructuring agreements signed in 2000, 2003 and 2008. Just this year, CJHDevco unilaterally rescinded the contract with BCDA, then sued for a TRO with a Baguio court to prevent a government takeover of its facilities.

Last April, Judge Mona Lisa Tabora inhibited herself from the case because of her husband’s alleged “close financial ties” to the Sobrepeñas. Tabora’s husband is a Baguio City councilor. The pattern appears to be holding.

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TAGS: BCDA, camp john hay, CJHDevco., corporate battles, featured column, rent
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