By Ed Lingao
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
First of Two Parts
ON JUNE 6, 2011, a year and a half after the Maguindanao Massacre claimed the lives of 58 people, including 32 journalists, the Court of Appeals ordered the freezing of all the known assets of those accused of involvement in the crime: Andal Ampatuan Sr., his sons Andal Jr. and Zaldy, and 25 other Ampatuan family members and their associates.
The Court of Appeals Special Second Division headed by Justice Celia Librea-Leagogo issued the freeze order against 597 bank accounts, 113 real properties, 142 firearms, and 132 motor vehicles allegedly owned by the Ampatuans. Its objective: Prevent the frittering away of properties of one of the most powerful clans in the country while government pursues a civil forfeiture case against many of its members.
The families of the victims of the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre also intend to lay claim to these assets should the Quezon City Regional Trial Court hearing the multiple murder case rules against the Ampatuans.
But an investigation by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and the Mindanao-based media cooperative MindaNews shows that the freeze order may have come a little too late – 18 days too late, to be exact.
Documents unearthed by PCIJ and MindaNews show that at least eight Ampatuan real properties had already been sold off as early as May 19, 2011, or more than two weeks before the Court of Appeals could issue its freeze order, raising questions as to whether other properties have also been dissipated, distributed, or sold off in the last three years.
For Prima Quinsayas, private prosecutor in the massacre trial for the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), the incident raises a red flag for the families of the victims.
“If there is nothing, no account, no property that could be seized in order to satisfy the damages awarded by the court, assuming we get the convictions we want, then it is just an empty victory, a victory on paper,” she points out.
72 Ampatuan candidates
The apparently furtive sale of the eight real properties also raises question on government’s competence in running after the Ampatuan assets, and its ability to implement the freeze order. Yet while the sale appears to have taken court officials and government lawyers by surprise, some observers take it as yet another proof of the formidable skills of a clan that has shown itself to be a master of political survival and practical resiliency.
In fact, members of the clan are again gunning for local positions in considerable number in the May 2013 elections, with some even running as candidates of President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III’s ruling Liberal Party or of the so-called opposition coalition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) of Vice President Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay.
And yet just three years ago, soon after its most prominent members became suspects in the Maguindanao Massacre, association with the family had been deemed a kiss of death, so much so that then presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino’s Liberal Party even tried to link his rival Senator Manuel Villar to the Ampatuans.
All in all, at least 72 candidates running for elective positions in the 2013 elections in Maguindanao carry the surname or middle name Ampatuan.
Of these 72 candidates, 34 are running under Binay’s UNA, a coalition between the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban ng Pilipino (PDP-LABAN) and the Partido ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) of former President Joseph Estrada. Binay is bruited to be the political opposition’s man to beat in the 2016 presidential elections.
Interestingly, UNA’s line-up includes Johaira Ampatuan, wife of former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Governor and principal massacre suspect Zaldy Ampatuan, running for a second term as mayor of Datu Hoffer town under the PDP-LABAN; Reshal Ampatuan, wife of former Datu Unsay Mayor and principal massacre suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr., also running for a second term as mayor of Datu Unsay under the PMP; Akmad Ampatuan Jr, who was implicated in the planning of the massacre, running for councilor of Mamasapano under the PDP-LABAN; and Zahara Ampatuan, wife of Anwar Ampatuan Sr., who is among those charged and detained for the massacre, running for another term as Mayor of Shariff Aguak under the PMP banner.
LP bags 9 Ampatuans
The Liberal Party (LP) that is chaired by President Aquino has also decided to embrace a slew of Ampatuan clan members as its official candidates.
Nine candidates with surnames or middle names of Ampatuan are running with gubernatorial candidate Esmael Mangudadatu under the LP banner. Mangudadatu lost his wife Genalyn and his younger sister when they were murdered with 56 other victims in the infamous Maguindanao Massacre.
The LP’s Ampatuan candidates include Sarip Kasan Ampatuan, who is running against Zahara Ampatuan for mayor of Shariff Aguak; Norodin Masukat Ampatuan for mayor of Mamasapano town; and Murphy Ampatuan for vice mayor of Datu Hoffer. Running for councilor are Johaira Ampatuan Basilan and Mohamadnor Abdilla Ampatuan in Ampatuan town; Mohammad Khalid Ampatuan in Datu Odin Sinsuat; and Liambai Watamama Ampatuan, Norodin Ampatuan Asim, and Meriam Ampatuan Ledda in Shariff Aguak.
In media interviews during the filing of certificates of candidacies last month, Mangudadatu said that while some of the Ampatuans endorsed by the Liberal Party were close relatives of Andal Ampatuan Sr., they do not subscribe to the patriarch’s brand of politics and governance. In fact, Sarip Ampatuan is a half brother of Andal Sr., Mangudadatu said.
Sarip is running against Zahara Ampatuan, wife of Anwar Ampatuan, who is a grandson of Andal Sr. Anwar is also a respondent in the massacre case.
42 elected in May 2010
The 2013 elections are not really the first test case of the political resiliency of the Ampatuan brand in Maguindanao. In the 2010 elections, 42 Ampatuans were elected into office, including eight who had been implicated in the massacre.
Of the eight elected despite the pendency of the murder charges against them, three had run and won while in jail: Anwar Ampatuan Jr., who became Shariff Aguak vice mayor; Sajid Ampatuan, who ran for a provincial board seat; and Akmad Ampatuan, who is now Mamasapano vice mayor.
The remaining five who won positions even though they were still in hiding from the law include Saudi Ampatuan Jr., who became Datu Saudi mayor; Bahnarin Ampatuan, Mamasapano mayor; Anwar Jr., who clinched a council seat in Sharrif Aguak; Kanor Ampatuan, Salibo vice mayor; Mama Ampatuan, councilor of Salibo; and Norodin Ampatuan, councilor of Shariff Aguak.
But the clan’s ability to claw its way back into the mainstream, forge alliances with both the powers-that-be and the powers-that-could-be, and fight off attempts to curtail its economic might may not necessarily be an Ampatuan-only affair.
By all indications, the family’s mastery and deftness in protecting the fabulous economic assets that the patriarch has accumulated in the last decade could only have benefited from the help of a high-caliber battery of lawyers from Manila, Davao, and even Pampanga.
Lawyer, new owner
In truth, the added twist to the sale of the eight properties supposedly covered by the June 2011 freeze order is that the sole buyer is no other than one of the many lawyers of Andal Jr. The new owner also passed the bar just seven years ago.
To be sure, the properties that were sold off do not even amount to 10 percent of the total number of properties identified by the government as belonging to the Ampatuan clan. Too, the value of the properties in question pale in comparison to the real net worth of the Ampatuans that, by government estimates, may run up to billions of pesos.
Yet at the very least, the sale may raise questions of conflict of interest on the part of the lawyer. At its worst, legal experts say, the sale could be viewed as possible collusion between the lawyer and his client in order to ensure that the property is placed beyond the reach of the courts, especially in cases of civil forfeiture like the one currently faced by the Ampatuan clan.
The Court of Appeals freeze order stems from an urgent ex-parte petition filed by the Anti Money Laundering Council (AMLC) on May 30, 2011. In its petition, the AMLC, a government superbody tasked with investigating suspicious bank transactions and money laundering activities, asked the Court for an immediate order to freeze the assets of the Ampatuan clan and its associates on suspicion that these constitute ill-gotten wealth. This, as the AMLC prepared a civil forfeiture case to take control of the Ampatuan assets.
The AMLC case against the Ampatuans is based primarily on the results of two fact-finding missions conducted in Maguindanao in the wake of the massacre. The first was the lifestyle check conducted by Deputy Ombudsman for Mindanao Humphrey Monteroso on orders of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez on then Maguindanao Governor Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his son, then ARMM Governor Zaldy Uy Ampatuan, in August 2010; and a special audit conducted by the Commission on Audit (COA) on the operations of ARMM for the period January 2008 to September 2009.
The COA audit showed glaring anomalies in the handling of some P2.5 billion in operational funds granted to the Office of the Regional Governor. The Ombudsman Lifestyle Check report, meanwhile, went a step further by cross-referencing the assets of the Ampatuan clan identified by other government agencies such as the local city assessor’s offices and the Registers of Deeds or the Land Transportation Office with the statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALNs) that the clan members in government are supposed to file every year.
It was the Ombudsman’s report that, for the AMLC, showed probable cause that the Ampatuans had wealth far in excess of their known sources of income in government. With this, the AMLC moved to have the Ampatuan assets seized as ill-gotten wealth.
In its ex-parte petition, AMLC had submitted a thick list of bank accounts, real properties, vehicles, and firearms to the court. “Annex H” of the AMLC petition is what the AMLC describes as an “initial” list of Ampatuan assets identified and compiled by various state agencies, from local government units to the Philippine National Police. The assets ranged from firearms to motor vehicles, to bank accounts and real properties that were allegedly owned or at least controlled by the Ampatuans.
Among the listed real properties were eight in Davao City covered by Transfer Certificates of Title numbers T-444571; T-445459; T-416373; T430739; T430740; T-445458; T445460; and T430741. Seven of the properties are in upscale Juna Subdivision, the same subdivision where the grand mansion of Andal Ampatuan Sr. is located. These properties range in size from 555 square meters to 600 square meters. The eighth property measures 783 square meters and is located in Matina Crossing.
All eight properties, the AMLC said, were registered in the name of Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr. and his wife Reshal.
In the Finance Department’s latest guidelines for setting the zonal values in Davao City in 2002, properties in Juna Subdivision were given zonal values ranging from P2,400 to P2,680 per square meter. This means the seven properties in Juna could each have a zonal value of P1.4 to P1.6 million for the land alone.
The Matina Crossing property, meanwhile, may have a higher zonal value, depending on what part of that area the land is situated in. The zonal values established for the area range from P 1,200 to P5,000 per square meter, which translates to a maximum of P 3.9 million in zonal value for just the land.
Not on list anymore
When the Court of Appeals Special Second Division granted the AMLC’s petition for a freeze order a week later, the eight properties were still included in the list of assets to be frozen. But by then all eight had a new owner.
Land records from the Register of Deeds in Davao City show that by the time the freeze order was handed down, the old TCTs under the name of a Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr. had already been cancelled, and new TCTs covering the same properties issued in the name of an Arnel C. Manaloto of 46 Sto. Entierro Street, Angeles City.
PCIJ acquired certified true copies of the new transfer certificates of title (TCT) now under the name of Manaloto from the Land Registration Authority. PCIJ also acquired certified true copies of the previous land titles of the eight properties still under the name of Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., cancelled in favor of Manaloto.
The new TCTs indicate that all but one of the eight properties were transferred to Manaloto on the same day, May 13, 2011, or nearly three weeks before the Court of Appeals could issue its freeze order and some two weeks before AMLC filed its ex-parte petition. The eighth property was transferred to Manaloto on May 19 of the same year.
In place of the cancelled TCTs previously under the name of Andal Jr., Davao Register of Deeds Asteria Ebona-Cruzarba issued consecutive TCT numbers 146-2011005106 to 2011005112 and TCT 2011005229 in favor of Arnel C. Manaloto.
PCIJ was able to locate at least one of the properties purchased by Manaloto from Andal Ampatuan Jr. The property is located along Kasuy St. in Juna Subdivision, Davao City, along the same road where a massive mansion built by Andal Ampatuan Sr. for his wife Bai Laila sits.
The property is sprawling, with a low-slung house in the middle and bonsai plants lined up in front. There are at least two separate gates for the use of vehicles, although there were no vehicles in the garages at the time of PCIJ’s visit. Across the property, on an empty lot, are two bamboo waiting areas reportedly used by Andal Jr.’s bodyguards and drivers whenever the Ampatuans used the house.
The caretaker of the house confirmed to PCIJ that Manaloto has owned the property since last year, although he seldom comes by to visit.
Ethics for lawyers
Manaloto is among the army of lawyers that the Ampatuans have contracted for legal assistance in battling the many cases filed against them both in Manila and in Maguindanao. Specifically, Manaloto’s client is Andal Jr., the same person who sold him the Davao properties, and Andal’s wife Reshal.
Manaloto has no part in the Ampatuans’ civil forfeiture case pending before the Manila RTC Branch 22, according to the clerk of court there. But to University of the Philippines College of Law professor and former UP Vice President for Legal Affairs Teddy Te, the sale of the properties by Andal Jr. to a lawyer representing him in a related case still raises several legal and ethical questions.
“There is an ethical rule as far as our profession is concerned that forbids us, prohibits us from being interested in property that is owned by the client,” Te says.
The rule exists for two reasons, he says: first, a lawyer who is interested in a client’s property may no longer have his client’s interest in mind when he represents the client. But more importantly, says Te, such transactions could be used to shield properties from the reach of the courts, especially in cases of civil forfeiture.
“It could also be the other way, a possible source of collusion, a possible source of fraud,” he says. “If the lawyer knows that they are supposed to hide something, and the client tells him that he will have a property transferred to him, and the lawyer agrees, then that is problematic because now they share the same interest there… and the interest is fraudulent.”
“The role of the lawyer,” Te explains, “is to say I will not do this because this is forbidden, and the effect of this act is to take the property away from the reach of the law. But if the lawyer agrees and the property is transferred to him, then there is no conflict (of interest anymore) because they now have the same interest which is to keep the property away; then yes, that could be a source of action and a source of discipline as well.”
He believes Manaloto could be held to account for his purchase of some of Andal Jr.’s real-estate assets that were the subject of litigation.
Comments Te: “He should have known better. He was not born yesterday… He knows what those properties signify, he knows what those properties mean, and if he did not. then perhaps he should have done due diligence first. And again, if I were a buyer and I would be buying six to eight tracts of land worth several millions of pesos from a person who is in jail for a massacre, then at the very least, I would be very careful.”
Land Registration Authority Deputy Administrator Ronald Ortile, for his part, says the local Register of Deeds itself found nothing anomalous with the transaction, as it was done before the freeze order was handed down by the Court of Appeals. Neither could the local Register of Deeds divine the intention of the buyer and the seller of a certain property to determine if the sale would be collusive in nature.
Ortile also notes, “If the documents are complete, even if it is on public record that the case is under investigation for forfeiture, and at that time the transaction was entered into the registry there was no notice freezing the property yet, then it is the ministerial duty of the Register of Deeds to process the transaction.”
“The Register of Deeds has to wait for the actual receipt of the freeze order,” he adds. “Until such time, insofar as the title of the property is concerned, there is nothing to stop it. I cannot assume that this will be a fraudulent transaction. That is dangerous, that would be giving undue discretion to the Register of Deeds.”
Still, the sale of the properties raises yet another question: Could Manaloto have afforded the purchase of eight properties of significant sizes in the heart of Davao City?
Observes Te: “These are huge tracts of land, these are many parcels of property and the question (is) how he was able to get enough income to buy those properties all at the same time?”
Interestingly, each of the cancelled TCTs previously registered under Andal Jr.’s name has an attached memorandum of encumbrances that states that the property covered by the TCT was sold to Manaloto for P20 million. But it’s not clear if the eight properties were purchased by Manaloto for P20 million each, or if all eight were purchased as part of a package deal of P20 million.
The Register of Deeds also noted in the memorandum of encumbrances that the Bureau of Internal Revenue in Davao had already issued a certificate authorizing registration (CAR), attesting to the payment of taxes for the sale of property. The BIR said capital gains tax of P1.2 million had been paid for the sale of the property, with another P 300,000 for the documentary stamp tax.
Manaloto has refused to talk to PCIJ for this story, despite several attempts by PCIJ to get his side. PCIJ first went to Manaloto’s address listed in the TCT, but he had moved to a new address earlier this year. PCIJ found his modest law office a few kilometers away along Pandan Street in Angeles City.
Manaloto’s secretary said the lawyer was not present, although there were several clients waiting for him in the office foyer. The clients would tell PCIJ later that the secretary said their meeting with Manaloto was cancelled because of our presence.
Repeated calls to Manaloto’s office for an appointment yielded no result. His secretary said he was busy in Manila, and seldom came to his law office in Angeles. Asked if Manaloto had another office in Manila, the secretary said: “Kay Attorney Fortun.”
Fortun on Manaloto
Attorney Sigfrid Fortun of the Fortun Narvasa and Salazar Law Office is the lead defense counsel of the Ampatuans in the multiple-murder case. Asked through email if he knew Manaloto, Fortun wrote back: “Yes I know of Attorney Arnel Manaloto as he assists Andal Jr. in cases regarding his family in Maguindanao and suits of Andal Jr.’s wife Reshal before various tribunals. Arnel assists Andal Jr. alone and not Sr. and Zaldy.”
When queried if Manaloto was part of his defense team, Fortun replied: “No he is not part of my defense team in the massacre cases. I last met Arnel in Mexico, Pampanga, in January of this year in his wedding where I was one of about 15 other sponsors.”
The Court of Appeals freeze order against the Ampatuan properties already lapsed as of December 2011, and has been carried over by a Provisional Asset Preservation Order (PAPO) issued by the Manila Regional Trial Court branch 22 under Executive Judge Marino de la Cruz, who is hearing the civil forfeiture case filed by AMLC.
The new PAPO, which is akin to a freeze order, no longer includes the eight Ampatuan properties in Davao that had been sold to Manaloto. The list of real properties included in the PAPO, however, has grown to 161 real properties.
Disparity in assets count
Judge de la Cruz has also refused to be interviewed for this story, saying he is not allowed to make any comment on a pending case. But PCIJ was informed that in the wake of its inquiries with the AMLC and the courts, the Manila RTC is now asking all state agencies affected by the PAPO to file a return on the status of the properties that they are supposed to be regulating or monitoring. This would include the Registers of Deeds of Cotabato and Davao City. As for the properties already sold off by the Ampatuans, one court official says that these are already outside the court’s jurisdiction.
PCIJ tried to secure interviews with AMLC Executive Director Vicente Aquino, but was told the AMLC’s operations are confidential. Instead, the media affairs office of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, which oversees the AMLC, said there was initial difficulty in getting a complete list of assets in the name of the Ampatuans.
“With regard to the real properties, the concerned officials of the Register of Deeds reported that they were affected by typhoon and that they would exert all their effort to search for and verify the documents relating to the properties subject of the freeze order,” the BSP said in an email to the PCIJ.
This was the reason for the disparity in the AMLC list that was submitted to the Court of Appeals, which had 101 real properties, and the Manila RTC, which had 161 real properties: “These properties are located in Cotabato City, Davao City, and Maguindanao province. However, they reported 160 titles in the name of the persons involved. This is more than the 101 real properties subject of the freeze order.”
In addition, the BSP indicated that the list of properties it has is far from complete, saying that it may yet update the list of real properties with the Manila court as soon as more documents become available. “Properties we had no documentary evidence to prove the ownership were excluded from the civil forfeiture case,” the BSP said. “However, as soon as these documents become available, and it is established that all the properties are owned by the respondents in the civil forfeiture case, we will request the Office of the Solicitor General to file the appropriate pleading in court to include these properties in the petition for civil forfeiture.”
Clan dissipating assets?
With the sale of the eight properties and government’s apparent inability to finalize a list of targeted properties, private prosecutor Quinsayas says the government is still to show that it is serious in going after the Ampatuan assets.
“It is government that filed that case,” she says. “(What’s) the point of filing a case if it is not going to safeguard what they hope to safeguard, which is to keep the properties frozen or maintain the status quo so that there is no movement, no attempt to alienate the properties, mortgage the properties, hide the properties in someone else’s name. That is the job of government if it is really serious about the case that AMLC filed.”
Quinsayas says that the sale of the Ampatuan properties in Davao confirms what the families of the massacre victims have been afraid of all this time: that the Ampatuans would try to dissipate their assets as the case plods on.
“The last time this was raised,” she says, “was last year when someone said, ‘Attorney, if they are convicted, would they still have properties because what if they had already sold them, or transferred them to someone else’s name? What if after four or five years, even if we get a conviction and the judge awards damages, the decision cannot be executed because there is nothing, no property to be used to pay the civil damages awarded by the court?’”
What if, indeed? PCIJ decided to ask Ampatuan lawyer Sigfrid Fortun if the Ampatuans had sold any of their properties recently. Fortun replied through email that no properties have been sold “after the AMLC case had been filed.”
“I know that after the AMLC case had been filed, no real properties had been sold by my clients (Andal Sr., Andal Jr., and Zaldy) to any one,” Fortun wrote in his email. “Of course I am not always with them and thus do not know what they do when I am not around.” – With additional reporting by Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews, and research by Karol Anne Ilagan and Rowena F. Caronan, PCIJ, November 2012