I don’t know what to make of it, honestly. It was one of those “gulp!” moments, those times when I run to google and go through my old digital notes to remember why I’m having uneasy feeling now.
Ok, I admit, I wanted some hints Yasay is equipped to handle foreign policy, especially with issues as sensitive as the sea dispute with China, even if he is just warming the seat for a year until Duterte’s running mate Cayetano takes over (the plan, as of now). A part of me wants to be assured Duterte saw something in his room mate at a dormitory in Manila when they were law students that I may have missed, or that this is more than a thank-you for Yasay’s help during the campaign (which includes putting the blame for the failures of the pre-need industry squarely on Duterte’s opponent, Mar Roxas).
Several of the announced Duterte Cabinet members do not seem to have the competency and skills that are reassuring to me. These, including foreign affairs, are sensitive positions where decisions made now will decide if my future will be better or worse. After all, we’re talking about sensitive diplomatic relations with our neighbours in Asean and beyond, climate change, OFWs issues, economic diplomacy and drawing in investments.
So I’m sharing a summary of stories or issues I or my colleagues have written about or interviewed Yasay on that may give us those hints:
1. Ex-president Estrada, PLDT sale and BW scandal
Yasay’s stint as Securities and Exchange Commissioner from 1995 to 2000 (Ramos and the Estrada administrations) is his main claim to fame.
He had two encounters with Estrada, a mayor who became a president, just like Rodrigo Duterte, the president-elect who was Davao mayor for decades. (Yasay studied high school in Davao.) Both of Yasay’s encounters with Estrada were unpleasant, and, well, either illegal or unethical.
The first involved the BW Resources stock-price fixing scandal, the worst to rock the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE), and the other was the sale of telco giant PLDT to its current owners. Both happened almost simultaneously.
Early into the Estrada administration in 1998, the price of BW Resources, an online bingo gaming company, zoomed over 5,000% in less than a year. Insider trading and stock manipulation were allegedly led by Estrada’s friend, Dante Tan, who owns BW Resources. Yasay claimed Estrada called him to clear Tan of any wrongdoing. (Yikes.)
But Yasay made the situation worse by unilaterally ordering the suspension of trading at the exchange, which the SEC oversees, following a plan by the surveillance group at the stock exchange to resign en mass (due to reported political intervention in the investigation). Yasay may have wanted to be a hero and “protect the investors,” but he was vilified for making the already tense situation worse. (You don’t close the entire market if there’s only one bad apple there!) Plus, stopping the stock market was not a collegial decision at the SEC, apparently.
Around that time, he has already submitted his resignation after he was suspended twice for investigating the sale deal involving telco giant PLDT.
So, when the BW scandal-turned-Yasay-show happened, Estrada called on Yasay’s previous offer to resign. This was when it became interesting: Yasay told the press his position as SEC chairman assures him he could stay up to 2004, thus, he may take back his offer to resign. (Huh?)
After Yasay stepped down, he was involved in the moves to remove Estrada from the presidency. Yasay was among those who testified during the impeachment hearings against Estrada that the then-embattled president had received a “commission” for helping Salim-controlled First Pacific acquire PLDT (by allegedly convincing shareholders Antonio Cojuangco Jr. and Alfonso Yuchengco to let go). This issue remained unresolved since Edsa 2 happened, cutting off the presentation of evidence and testimonies.
What I learned about Yasay in these episodes:
2. Pre-need issue
One of SEC’s greatest failures was the collapse of the pre-need financial industry, bringing down with it the dreams of so many Filipinos, especially in funding the much-prized opportunity to bring their kids to school.
Under Yasay’s watch at the SEC, the pre-need firms’ grew exponentially but unsustainably (they were promising future benefits that their current collections and investments couldn’t meet). Their decline — a rapid one eventually culminated in the collapse of College Assurance Plan (CAP) in 2005, and several others in succeeding years. Yasay was probably caught up in the above Estrada-linked issues, that pre-need and others had to take the backseat.
He also seemed more preoccupied with unconfirmed gossips, like Mar Roxas forcing AIG, then still a global giant and partner of local Philamlife insurance group, to be CAP’s white knight. (Not true, apparently. And Philamlife ex-chief Jose Cuisia had already said it was CAP who sought them for a deal, not vice versa.)
When Yasay mentioned this during the 2016 presidential campaign to bring Roxas down, his facts were readily questioned. Roxas was the trade secretary when Yasay was in the SEC. Granting, even if the AIG-buying-into-CAP was true, it doesn’t negate the fact that CAP was in trouble. Why point the finger at a possible deal that could have potentially saved CAP from collapse, and with it tons of sob stories from thousands of pre-need investors? The finger should have been pointed at the owners and managers of CAP and to its regulator, the SEC, which Yasay headed!
Yasay, though, was credited for forcing the pre-need companies to report their financial health using a uniform accounting system, which he would later claim was a way for the insurance industry to kill the pre-need industry (Huh?!). Anyway, getting the pre-need firms to reflect their financial health on paper eventually proved years after that the companies were in deep trouble. His successor, Lilia Bautista, gave more attention to the pre-need industry and beefed up regulatory oversight over the troubled companies, and pushed for reforms.
What I learned: He tried, but not enough.
He also needs to get his facts straight before coming out in public and dangling an imagined situation.
He needs to frame his messaging more clearly and in sync with reality.
3. NAIA-3 and Lucio Tan
NAIA-3 is a shared past between Yasay and another key personality in the Duterte inner circle: Pantaleon Alvarez who is being positioned as the incoming Speaker of the House.
In 2001, Yasay was the lawyer behind one of the NAIA-3-related criminal charges, including a plunder case before the Ombudsman against Alvarez who was then transportation secretary.
But first, a background: After his stint in the SEC, Yasay took on private clients, including Lucio Tan for the tycoon’s moves and ambitions regarding the a terminal at the Manila airport, called NAIA-3. Tan’s proposal for the NAIA-3 project was eventually rejected by the government after another bidder, the Cheng family of Piatco, gave government a better financial offer. Tan coveted the airport even when Piatco and its German partner, Fraport, were about to open it to the public in 2002.
Yasay was the lawyer of the international airport service operators belonging to a group called MASO. It was the public entity that mounted a public campaign against the operation of NAIA-3, fearing that exclusivity provisions in the concession agreement would force them out of business. Oh, by the way, MASO included companies owned by Tan.
Through press releases, full-page ads, and other means, MASO urged the lenders and government officials, including then-President Gloria Arroyo, to withdraw support from the NAIA-3 project because it was “illegal, corrupt and onerous.” By the way, Yasay was also the lawyer of AEDC, Tan’s firm that lost the bidding war to Piatco and Fraport.
The plan, apparently, was to bring Piatco and Fraport down, so AEDC, being the original project proponent, may resume talking to the government about taking back the NAIA-3 project.
What I learned:
Whew! It’s a small world we have (Alvarez).
Yasay’s not afraid to take on controversial clients, as well as employ good-ol’ lawyering and public relations tactics. I wonder if these parochial experiences have given him enough insights and perspectives on how varying and maybe intersecting interests are played in the world stage.
4. Banco Filipino
In the ugly and very public family fight between and among the Aguirre family members, Yasay was on the side of Bobby Aguirre. The polo-playing playboy eased out his siblings, aunts and uncles from the boardrooms of Banco Filipino, as well as other allied companies, so he can control these himself.
Not long after, the mid-sized bank Banco Filipino, and the other Bobby Aguirre-controlled companies collapsed one at a time. Yasay, who was then the lawyer and vice chair for Banco Filipino, bought more time by going after the regulators, like the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, and intimidating those that crossed their paths by filing cases left and right. (Disclosure: I and my editor were among those dragged to the courts for writing investigative stories on the fall of Banco Filipino. The cases were eventually dropped.)
Yasay kept on telling the media and the depositors with a straight and serious face that Banco Filipino was not insolvent — even if depositors couldn’t withdraw their money, or that checks by the bank and the depositors were already bouncing. He said the blame should squarely be on the BSP since the latter did not extend it emergency loans and financial assistance. (What?!)
But the BSP fought back, telling the courts Banco Filipino promised higher-than-usual yield to their depositors to pay fat fees to lawyers and consultants. The regulator singled out lawyers like Yasay. “They were paid P245 million in 2010 alone. Of this, P131 million was paid from October to December last year,” BSP was quoted as saying here.
What I realised:
I wonder what he learned about diplomacy and strategy in managing disputes to make sure these do not get out of control.
After retiring from the SEC in 2000, he ran for the Senate in 2001 and 2004 under the Aksyon Demokratiko party of former Sen. Raul Roco. In both races, he garnered only 4.5 million votes and lost.
In the 2010 elections, Yasay was the vice presidential bet of Bangon Pilipinas, the party of presidential aspirant Eddie Villanueva who lost. Yasay garnered less than 500,000 votes.
The almost-70 lawyer born in Kidapawan City in Cotabato is in the good graces of an incoming president. He’s back in the limelight.
What I realised:
He needs reality checks.