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MANILA, Philippines - Senator Lito Lapid, one of the judges in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, is himself the subject of a discreet inquiry by the Office of the Ombudsman, its curiosity triggered about the lawmaker’s reportedly fabulous assets here and abroad.
The antigraft watchdog, mandated by law to conduct investigations motu propio or even in the absence of a formal complaint, started making quiet inquiries about the senator’s own assets and liabilities shortly after his wife Marissa was caught red-handed by US authorities with some $50,000 at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on January 15.
Two of Lapid's closest business associates confirmed to News5 having received calls separately in February from an Ombudsman investigator inquiring about the senator's wealth a week after Marissa's arrest. One said the senator cajoled him to keep silent; the other said he would talk only if he were caught in the middle.
Marissa is out on bond, but is still in the United States, staying in a family-owned house at No. 2055 Buffalo Drive in Las Vegas. The house has been placed under lien by a US court to ensure that she would appear in court if and when indicted for dollar smuggling.
Lapid acquired the Buffalo Drive house and another Las Vegas house in Bugler Swan Way, with a combined cost for the two assets of over $1 million; and a P25-million duplex in Baguio City the past six years. All of these are not included in the senator’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) filed in April 2011, according to his close associates.
The duplex had an initial selling price of P40 million.
Neither Lapid nor any of his staff could confirm or deny having received notice of an Ombudsman inquiry, much less talk about it. They all turned down News5’s repeated requests for an interview since early February.
It was not clear if the inquiries were made in response to calls by former Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio to revive the plunder charges he filed the against the senator in 2009.
The Office of the Ombudsman said it does not discuss publicly any complaint it has received or anything that is still under preliminary investigation.
Panlilio told News5 recently that he wrote a letter asking the Commission on Audit in February to investigate Lapid as a result of Marissa's arrest. He urged the commission to persuade the new Ombudsman, former Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, to reopen the case, he added.
Last Friday, Marissa's Harvard-educated American lawyer Eliot Krieger told News5 in a phone interview that Marissa is set to appear in court shortly before or after the Holy Week break.
She was first supposed to face indictment last February 7, but the Nevada court decided to suspend it within the next 60 days, he added. US law allows a foreigner to carry up to $10,000 in cash without any question. Beyond that amount, the foreigner must declare it, and Marissa allegedly failed to do so on purpose.
Krieger denied reports that Marissa had figured in a similar smuggling controversy, and gotten away with it, before the May 2010 elections.
Marissa was held on the basis of a US federal warrant dated Jan. 5, 2012 for the same reason she was arrested on Nov. 27. She managed to fly back to the Philippines after the November arrest, but US airport authorities subsequently filed an affidavit that said Marissa was trying to smuggle dollars through the Las Vegas airport.
She had declared to have brought in only $10,000; but authorities found more--in two socks containing $10,000 each and another $20,000 inside a cloth bag. Hence, when she flew again to the US on January 15, she was arrested anew.
Both the senator and Marissa admitted she had carried $50,000 into the States, but gave different reasons for the purpose of the money.
The senator said it was earmarked for her medical treatment in the US. His 54-year-old wife, on the other hand, said it was meant to pay for a house.
“We’re not buying a house,” the senator quickly retorted in a subsequent statement issued in Manila. “That amount would not be enough (for a house). We did want to buy one, but we want our children to pay their shares too.”
These conflicting statements, apart from alleged violations of US smuggling laws, could have prompted the Office of the Ombudsman to inquire about the senator’s pieces of property, said one of Lapid’s associates, trying to make sense of the questions thrown at him. “You don’t bring out so much money without having any idea where to use it,” he said. He said he was not aware if Panlilio had initiated a new complaint.
The Lapids have yet to admit publicly that they own a house in the US. The senator's end-2010 SALN does not say he has acquired one.
Based on the statement filed in April 2011, Lapid owns P26.5 million in various real property; P10.2 million in cash, vehicles, and other personal property; and P17.8 million in loans payable. In all, he has a net worth of P18.9 million.
From 2008 to 2009, while his net worth slightly grew from P14.6 million to P15.9 million, Lapid's real property was pegged only at P25.1 million.
He did not specify which property is covered by the sworn statement. There is no mention of any US property.
In Pampanga alone, he owns a 50-hectare farm in Porac town, where stands what his neighbors call “The Lapid Mansion”. Its estimated market value has been placed at P40 million. His family is also reputed to own tracts of land in Porac, including a smaller yet still sprawling house occupied by his son Mark, a former Pampanga governor, beside the senator’s farm-mansion.
Loses to Binay but gains a house
Lapid acquired a P15-million house in Magallanes Village in Makati, more than a year after the Arroyo administration announced that it would field him as the administration's mayoral candidate in Makati in 2007 when it failed to unseat Jejomar Binay. He ran and lost to Binay, but retained his seat at the Senate. The house is now for rent. A former friend, Baby Pascual, who helped broker the purchase of the property, along with former Pagcor chair Efraim Genuino, ignored requests for an interview.
He has a three-story Mar-Man building on Scout Borromeo Street, Quezon City. According to Securities and Exchange Commission documents, Lapid is one of the owners of Classic Films International and Mar-Man Farms Corp. He was also reported to have acquired two condominium units at the Imperial Hotel on Timog Avenue, one of which is occupied by a ranking staff member at the Senate.
Marissa owns and operates MTL Enterprises and Walmart Construction Supply, Maynards' Agri Farm Supply, Barstow Minimart, Generics Pharmacy and Porac Ice Plant, and Marissa Hall, which is rented out for private and public functions. She was reported to have bought two lots in Porac worth P20 million from the David and Cuyugan families. She also owns a Seaoil fuel station in Barangay Sta. Cruz, also in Porac. A sales receipt issued by the gasoline station on February 8 listed her name as dealer.
Vegas house under lien
Two months into Marissa's arrest, News5 got a virtual confirmation of the existence of the family's US property from various sources, including Krieger, a former assistant US attorney who is on the superlawyers.com list of highly-paid counsels in Southern California.
Krieger said the US is holding Marissa inside her house in Las Vegas, now under lien. He did not provide details of the house, but a senator's staff said the house is located at No. 2055 South Buffalo Drive in North Las Vegas. Under lien means Marissa has opted to post the property as a bond, instead of cash, to ensure that she would appear in court. "The US won't place the house under lien if she doesn't own it," the staff said.
"She's doing well" at this time, Krieger said in a statement emailed to News5 last Thursday. But Marissa couldn't leave the States and go back to the Philippines, he added, until after the issues holding her in the United States have been resolved. "The lien will be removed when the case is resolved. She cannot lose her home. I am hopeful that justice will be done, and she will be exonerated," he said.
Added the senator's staff member: "She can stay there (for now), but she can't sell it--until the case is finished."
Based on documents obtained by News5, the Lapids own not just one, but two house-and-lot units in the US, with an aggregate worth of over a $1 million.
The Lapid house on Buffalo Drive where Marissa is now staying has six bedrooms. Bought in 2009 for $535,000, it has a swimming pool and a tennis court.
She has been asked to wear an ankle bracelet monitoring device inside the house.
Other house more expensive
The other house, the family's first in the US, is more expensive, since it is located inside a gated subdivision near a golf course. It was bought in year 2006 at $619,000. It is located at No. 7304 Bugler Swan Way, Aliante, also in North Las Vegas. This one is not under lien.
Before the arrest, the 54-year-old Marissa made 20 trips to the United States between 1993 and 2005. When in the US in the last several months, she stayed in either of the two houses.
Surprisingly, another friend said Marissa brought into the US some $50,000 neither for medical expenses nor for the purchase of a new house; the amount was earmarked to cover payment of annual property tax. "It is that time of the year that you have to settle your real tax obligations," he said.
In September 2009, the Lapids transferred the title of the Buffalo Drive property to Sunrice Llc; and the Bugler property to Capitol Wins, according to the documents. The family owns both firms.
In the Philippines, the Lapids have acquired other pieces of property in Quezon and Angeles cities and some shares of stock in joint ventures inside Clark Freeport Zone, including in Oxford Casino, through businessman Bernie P. Cruz, a contractor based in Angeles City. They also have condominium units in Green Valley and Foggy Hill in Baguio City. Another one is under construction in Bataan.
Reached for comment in the first week of February, Cruz told News5 in a brief phone interview that he had indeed been questioned by an Ombudsman officer on Lapid's property. He agreed to a longer phone interview, saying an investigation might put his reputation at stake. It did not push through.
When Lapid voted in favor of the opening of the dollar accounts of Chief Justice Renato Corona in the impeachment trial, Cruz reportedly told a friend he need not grant an interview because the "senator's vote (against Corona) was an assurance that he wouldn't be investigated anymore."
If one wants to know more about Lapid’s wealth, according to Lapid’s close friend and golf buddy North Nepomuceno, an engineer once based in the US, only Cruz could provide the answer.
News5 went to see Cruz at the Angeles Water District office in Pampanga after a few days, but he didn't show up and subsequently ignored all other requests for an interview.
Duplex in John Hay
In September last year, Lapid acquired a P40-million duplex inside Camp John Hay in Baguio City from Korean businessman Kim Sung Hwan, just opposite the unit of Sen. Manny Villar. Hwan's foreman told News5 that the duplex was built using only imported materials. The foreman and caretakers of the duplex said Lapid owns it.
Based on interviews with different insiders in the Lapid camp, another businessman identified as Aristotle Viray paid P10 million in personal check issued in August 2011 "on behalf of the senator" as down payment for the duplex. Reached for more details, Viray’s lawyers said the businessman "would talk only at the proper time and before the proper body."
In last month's flower festival in Baguio, Lapid and his golf buddies, mostly bodyguards whom he taught how to play golf, slept for two nights in the duplex, located a few steps away from the camp's golf course.
By 10 a.m. of Feb 25, eve of the Panangbenga parade, he and his constant companion, Korean car trader Crystal Lee, and their bodyguards drove to the nearby Main Club in a convoy of five luxury cars, including a 2011 Audi and a Grandia, tailed by a medical ambulance bearing his name, unmindful of this newsman waiting for him at the doorsteps. News5 sent word, through one of his men, requesting for even a short interview, but was told that the senator didn't want to be disturbed.
No specifics on cars
In the same April 2011 statement of assets and liabilities, Lapid disclosed having P10.2 million in cash and vehicles. Again, the statement didn't specify the cars he owns.
Driving his way to the Senate, Lapid uses a white 2010 Grandia, according to a Senate employee. He has a second-hand Porsche Cayman, but uses it only to go to private functions. A BMW 320D is registered under Marissa’s name, but son Maynard uses it instead.
Lapid and Marissa have four children; his eldest is Mark who heads the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority of the Department of Tourism. He lives in a P150,000-a-month house in Green Meadows in Quezon City, which is owned by the family of the late banker Ted Borlongan.
Like the senator, Mark also owns a Porsche Cayenne diesel (bought in September 2011 for P7.5 million) and a second-hand BMW 7 series, but goes to office using a white Grandia. Until today, his Porsche has no plate number, just a conduction sticker. A check with PGA said the car was listed under Viray’s name.
Panlilio’s plunder suit: dismissed by Gutierrez
In 2009, Panlilio charged Lapid, Mark and other Pampanga officials with plunder, accusing them of enriching themselves using the province’s quarry funds.
Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez cleared all of them of the charges a month before she resigned in April 2011, when she was under pressure from the prospect of an impeachment trial under the Aquino administration. Panlilio’s charge sheet did not include the senator's other sources of funds, including gifts and doleouts.
Lapid has reportedly called his wife a number of times over the phone inquiring about her condition in the US, according to one of his friends. But until late February, the senator didn’t have a plan to see her in the US just yet as he has been busy with his tasks as judge in the Corona impeachment trial.