Angara engineered soft landing for Erap, new bio says
In September 2000 in Nasugbu, Batangas, Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson told then Agriculture Secretary Edgardo Angara: “Compadre, [the illegal numbers game] jueteng is being taken away from me by Atong Ang. Please tell Erap not to do that… It’s okay if they take it away from me, but don’t give it to my enemy.”
Referring to then President Joseph Estrada, Singson told Angara: “He benefited from me, anyway, and I have a list to prove it.” According to a new biography of Angara written by Jose Dalisay Jr., Angara revealed that Singson showed him a list of the contributions that he, Singson, had supposedly made to Estrada as the latter’s share from the numbers racket.
Disturbed by what Singson had told him, Angara phoned Estrada, and the then president told him to see him at 10 p.m. at his home in Greenhills, San Juan. When Angara conveyed what Singson revealed, Estrada said: “That’s not true, that’s a lie.”
Angara also told Estrada about the list Singson had showed him. Again Estrada dismissed it as a fabrication, and left it at that. But Angara warned that if Estrada didn’t speak with Atong Ang, the then president’s drinking buddy, Singson would go to then Senate Minority Leader Teofisto Guingona Jr., who would then “spill the beans” on the Senate floor.
Guingona eventually delivered his famous “I accuse” privilege speech, and the “jueteng” case was all over the news. Singson had told Guingona that he gave Estrada P400 million in payoffs from illegal gambling profits, and that Estrada had made another P170 million in tobacco tax kickbacks.
The explosive Senate exposé was the biggest corruption scandal to rock a Philippine administration in the postwar years. The charges triggered calls for Estrada’s impeachment, which then led to another street revolt that came to be known as “Edsa II.”
The scandal that shook the Estrada administration to its foundations broke out less than two years after he was elected by a landslide in the 1998 presidential election. It put Angara in a bind; he had hardly warmed his seat as agriculture secretary when the scandal exploded.
“When I got back, it was out in the open, and when Erap talked to me, it was to do damage control,” Angara says in the book. “Chavit had crossed the bridge and burned it.”
Sometime around Christmas 2000, Estrada spoke with Angara and asked him to take over as executive secretary. The administration was falling apart, and a firm hand and a clear mind were needed to pull it together, according to the book. Envisaging his role as a sort of mission impossible, Angara said, “Even I could see at the time that it was going to be a rescue more than anything, because people who were close to him, who had spoken very loudly in his favor, were abandoning him. When he asked me, the Cabinet had virtually disintegrated. Nobody was in charge from October to December, while the impeachment progressed. Ronnie Zamora took a leave in December and resigned in January. His national security adviser, Alexander Aguirre, followed soon after, among others.”
On Jan. 6, 2001, the on-leave Zamora resigned as executive secretary. He was by then embroiled in a fight for his political life. He was facing a lynch mob in Congress, in the media and in the streets. Chavit Singson’s whistle-blowing exposé of the racket, of which he was part, sent the public into an anti-Erap hysteria. Accusations grew, ranging from Estrada’s alleged incompetence as a president with a propensity for boozing and womanizing to his running the country through a “midnight Cabinet” peopled by questionable characters.
Then Social Welfare Secretary Gloria Macapagal Arroyo resigned from the Cabinet, followed by a wave of defections. Former presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos and Cardinal Jaime Sin joined the widespread clamor for Estrada to step down.
Earlier, on Nov. 13, 2000, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Estrada and transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial—for the first time in the history of the Philippine presidency.
The impeachment trial opened on Dec. 7. The trial provided compelling drama, followed by tens of thousands on television. Angara recalls in the book the tumultuous mood that engulfed the country in the most turbulent constitutional crisis ever faced by its democratic system. “That was January 2001. In 2000, I was spending most of my time in Mindanao (as agriculture secretary), and in November, not Erap himself but people close to him had tried to get me to manage the Executive Office. Because as early as November, we were already seeing some of his people taking a leave of absence. The impeachment case was under way and things were getting ugly. The Cabinet was in a state of paralysis… Erap was practically glued to the TV, following the Senate trial. I don’t know how the others coped, but I kept myself busy with my work in Agriculture.”
Even Angara doubted at that stage that Estrada’s presidency could still be saved and that everything would go back to normal. Why did Angara—an accomplished lawyer, a former president of the University of the Philippines, and a former Senate president—remain loyal to Estrada?
He explains his position thus: “I could see that the transition was coming. I could feel that Erap was on his way out. But I wanted to be able to manage a peaceful transition, to spare the country unnecessary bloodshed.” (Concluded on Wednesday)
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