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Damning evidence vs Celso

Business Mirror
Written by Omerta / Butch del Castillo
March 10, 2009

YESTERDAY, the sensational story of the Legacy Group’s operations under the orchestration of Celso de los Angeles started to unfold.

Two credible witnesses, both top executives of Legacy Consolidated Plans Inc., told of how de los Angeles had taken unlawful liberties with the trust funds of the preneed companies and the deposits of the rural banks that were all part of the Legacy Group of Companies.

It was all on national television and monitored by all the major AM radio stations.

The high-flying mayor of Santo Domingo, Albay, the central figure in this raging controversy, no longer looked as cool and composed as when he first attended the congressional probes called by both chambers of Congress only a few weeks ago.

Based on the juicy revelations of both witnesses presented by the Senate Committee on Economic Affairs, headed by Sen. Mar Roxas II, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Sen. Rodolfo Biazon and Roxas himself took turns in confronting de los Angeles on what he could say in his own defense. De los Angeles, looking dismayed and embattled for the first time, could only limply protest and deny the two witnesses’ eye-opening revelations.

He seemed to be twisting in the wind, like a bird that got a leg somehow caught in the brush.

But if Celso were a bird, one could say he’d certainly be of a rare species, a rara avis. I know of no other Filipino snake-oil salesman who has been as glib and clever as de los Angeles. He had made an art of cooking up some intricate, pie-in-the-sky moneymaking scheme that has dazzled and made hordes of small investors part with their hard-earned money or life savings.

But what made this man different from other scam artists was the way he had developed and nurtured key connections in government, connections that enabled him to operate without a hassle and with impunity. These connections provided him a mantle of protection while he was making a fool of thousands dreaming of making instant riches.

One incensed congressman estimates that all told, over 150,000 small investors have fallen victim to his alluring schemes both in his preneed and rural-banking operations.

“The artistry is in the way he has manipulated it, so that the government would end up paying for what he had looted from the rural banks,” the lawmaker said.

But if de los Angeles were indeed some kind of a bird, he definitely would be the predator or carnivorous kind in the class of hawks and falcons, in whose menu other gentler fruit-eating birds are a staple.

The weekly news magazine Philippine Graphic, incidentally, called de los Angeles a “bird of prey” last month in one of its issues in a detailed cover story. The Graphic account referred to the thousands of small Filipino investors and depositors (many who are overseas Filipino workers) who had entrusted their hard-earned money to the companies under the Legacy corporate umbrella.

At the Senate hearing yesterday, the public got an initial glimpse of how trust funds of the preneed companies and the deposits in the rural banks were siphoned off and diverted to the private bank accounts of de los Angeles.

The fully documented details were revealed for the first time by Carolina Hinola, president-chairman and chief operating officer; and Namnama Santos, chief finance officer of Legacy Consolidated Plans Inc.

The two key witnesses, who were privy to all the Legacy Group’s preneed operations, and who had taken the precaution of compiling all the damning documentary evidence to back up their story, were—excuse me, I can’t seem to resist the birdie metaphor—singing like canaries.

And while Senate President Enrile and Senators Roxas and Biazon seemed like eagles circling menacingly above for the kill, de los Angeles and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Commissioner Jess Martinez looked totally disoriented and petrified chicks on the ground.

The two lady witnesses, mincing no words, bluntly told the Roxas committee that never had de los Angeles relinquished his role as “chairman” and chief executive officer of the Legacy Group. All decisions and orders pertaining to the preneed and rural-bank funds were made solely by de los Angeles. In other words, Legacy Consolidated Plans Inc. was like a pocket out of which he took any amount of money for his personal purposes whenever he fancied it.

He was unrelenting in taking liberties with Legacy Consolidated funds. At one point, the deficit in the company’s funds had built up to P700 million, but he didn’t care and the withdrawals continued. Total liabilities to plan holders had gone up to about P1 billion, while assets remaining had gone down to some P300 million. Still, Legacy Consolidated continued to feed Celso’s private bank accounts with all the cash that was available.

The funds taken out of Legacy Consolidated were all for his private needs. Some of the funds were used to pay his laundry bill, the Meralco bill of his former wife, three payments of P1 million each for a house and lot in Parañaque for the son of Commissioner Martinez and a P100,000 monthly retainer for Parañaque Rep. Eduardo Zialcita totaling P1.8 million, among a host of other damning details. These are all according to some of the records presented to the Roxas committee.

At one point in the hearing, Santos let on that as chief finance officer, she had personal knowledge that Legacy Consolidated was ordered to make a series of fund releases amounting to P38 million from January to August 2007.

That was the year de los Angeles was running for mayor of Santo Domingo, Albay, the witness said.

It was on this point that Enrile asked de los Angeles how much he had actually spent for his candidacy. De los Angeles, however, seemed to sense a trap and said the amount he had spent was within the limit set by law. Referring to the rather large amount that was released to him by Legacy Consolidated from January to May, Enrile said: “You better be telling the truth because, otherwise, you could be stripped of your position. There is an issue here that is beyond the preneed.”

Other witnesses with more damning documentary evidence are set to surface, according to Senator Roxas, indicating that executives of Legacy’s rural banks have decided to come clean and help pin down de los Angeles.

It seems the evidence is piling up against Celso de los Angeles. The findings of the Committee on Economic Affairs alone can be used to strengthen the syndicated-estafa and other criminal charges filed by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the SEC and other private parties. All these criminal cases are being coursed through the Department of Justice, which has vowed to act with dispatch on these cases.

Thus, the high-flying Celso de los Angeles (here I go again), once the untouchable bird of prey, may, after all, end up in a cage for the nonbailable offense of syndicated estafa, a veritable jailbird.

March 10, 2009 - Posted by | Columns and Editorials | , , ,

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