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Shoddy relatives

“The cross-eyed and the liar are brothers of the thief and the mother of greed,” says an old Filipino proverb, which festers in the now 41-year-old coconut levy scandal.

The government this week bucked Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr.’s motion to dismiss a civil case involving a bid to “defraud the government of P426 million invested to produce hybrid coconut seedlings in Palawan.” That’s how the Presidential Commission on Good Government describes it.

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The other defendants are: Agricultural Investors Inc.’s Enrique and Marcos Cojuangco, Rafael Abello, and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile (now twisting in the pork barrel controversy).

Cojuangco said delays violated his right to the speedy disposition of the case. “The delay was not intentional … and was precipitated by defendant’s own inaction and legal maneuvering,” the Solicitor General replied, then asked the antigraft court: Shred the motion to dismiss, please.

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Thousands of small farmers had gone to their graves clutching worthless coconut levy stock certificates issued by the Marcos dictatorship. Presidential Decree No. 276 directed that “coco levies,” clamped in 68 provinces, would be owned by cronies “in their private capacities.”

Taxes became individual loot. If PD 276 is not scrubbed as unconstitutional, “Marcos [has] found a legal and valid way to steal,” wrote then Inquirer columnist Antonio Carpio. As Supreme Court justice today, Carpio finds himself vindicated.

Cojuangco served as martial law coconut czar until People Power 1986 drove him into exile with the dictator. In between, the coconut levy bankrolled a hydra-headed enterprise of coco mills, a bank, even a producers’ federation that never mustered the names of supposed one million members.

In August 1998, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal presented to President Joseph Estrada a Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference memo. “Abuse of state power wrung those monies from impoverished coconut farmers,” it said. “They should be returned.”

Erap never did. Before Edsa 2, he signed Executive Orders No. 313 and No. 315 which delivered the levy—estimated at over P100 billion then—to cronies. Today, Manila Mayor Estrada pledges honest government even as he vouches for his son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, who is tarred in the pork scam.

Led by then Chief Justice Hilario Davide, the Supreme Court ruled that the coconut levy comprised public funds. In November 2003, a furious Cojuangco unleashed Nationalist People’s Coalition congressmen to impeach Davide. They rammed through a House probe into expenditures of the Judiciary Development Fund.

Representatives Gilberto Teodoro of Tarlac and Felix Fuentebella of Camarines Sur filed the impeachment articles. Their backers were Darlene Antonino-Custodio, now Sen. Francis Escudero, Ace Durano, and Constantino Jaraula. Meet the “Brat Pack.”

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“In gangland’s culture, Davide is a negative example of the public official,” the Inquirer’s Randy David wrote then. “He does not grovel. He is … uncompromising” and, as the nation saw in Erap’s impeachment, “rules with impartiality. Now, he’s being taught a lesson by young heirs of those who’ve imagined themselves to be the real lords.”

“Is this a coalition of cretins?” snapped then Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. “The conundrum of the House is: how to climb out of the sh-t hole in which a third of its members descended with such stealth…”

The House spurned Cojuangco’s “hitmen.”

Shares owned by 14 companies bought with the coconut levy are “owned by the government,” Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro wrote for the Sandiganbayan in May 2004. “[They are] held in trust for all coconut farmers.”

“Coconut levy funds are prima facie public funds,” the Supreme Court said in “Republic v. Cocofed.” Penned by then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, the decision allowed sequestered shares to be voted by the PCGG, “pending final determination of who are their legal owners.” Thus, Cojuangco surrendered control of a fleeced United Coconut Planters Bank to the government.

On the levy, the Corona Supreme Court flip-flopped four times. It issued in 2011 an “entry of judgment”: Cojuangco’s P56.3-billion San Miguel Corp. shares are “final,” including blank SMC stock certificates found in a Malacañang vault after the Marcoses scrammed.

“The joke of the century,” snapped then Justice Conchita Carpio Morales. Cojuangco “used for his personal benefit the very same funds entrusted to him,” she said in a dissenting opinion. “[These] were released to him through illegal and improper machination of loan transactions. [His] contravention of corporation laws … indicates a clear violation of fiduciary duty…”

Then Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno wrote: Cojuangco’s stake in SMC was “built on the sweat of coconut farmers.” By a scheme of “corporate layering and multi-level loan transactions,” he diverted public funds.

“Prescription, laches or estoppel will not bar future action to recover unlawfully acquired property by public officials or dummies…” Sereno said.

Count out Corona who was eventually impeached and convicted.

Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” meanwhile, savaged 33.8 million coconut trees. Some 16.1 million were totally damaged. The bill comes up to P16.6 billion. Coconut oil exports slumped by 35 percent at the start of 2014.  The Philippines accounts for 40 percent of world exports.

The Philippine Coconut Authority seeks to fast-track replanting, using high-yielding varieties: Tacunan, Dwarf, and Baybay Tall. Some 400,000 seedlings will be produced by three universities in the Visayas. The PCA has five million seedlings ready for distribution and planting early this year.

Fine. But coconuts take a decade to grow. Does thievery of the coconut levy continue by “brothers of the thief and the mother of greed”?

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: coconut levy fund, Coconut levy scandal, Eduardo `danding’ cojuangco, Juan L. Mercado, opinion, PCGG, Philippine Coconut Authority, Viewpoint
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