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Loren’s Baggage

By GEMMA BAGAYAUA-MENDOZA

The senator’s husband is trailed by controversy.

He first saw her on television. She was a news anchor in her
mid-twenties. He was a forty-something politician-turned-businessman.
They met in the mid-’80s at the Matabungkay Beach Club, which his
family owned. Romance blossomed between Jose Antonio “Tony” Leviste and
Lorna Regina “Loren” Legarda.

She was recovering from a short-lived marriage. He is two decades
her senior—and a married man. She is only eight years older than his
first daughter, Maria Cecilia.

But Legarda’s relationship with Leviste’s first wife, Celia, and her stepdaughters, she explained, is more than cordial. “There was never any opposition because I wasn’t the cause of the breakup,” Legarda said. Leviste’s conversion to Islam in 1986—a spiritual choice, they both stress—allowed him to marry a second time, with Celia’s consent.

When two of Celia’s daughters, Maria Cecilia and Mary Joyce, married, Loren was their ninang (principal sponsor). When she ran for the Senate in 1998, equestrienne Toni (Marie Antoinette), Celia’s youngest daughter, was an active campaigner.

Since their Las Vegas marriage in 1987, the couple and Celia—of the Sarangaya family that developed White Plains—have lived in the same condominium building. This will change soon when the couple move to their Forbes Park home.

But it is not this unique domestic arrangement that dents Loren’s image. Rather, her husband may yet be the bane of her political career. His name—like that of first gentleman Mike Arroyo—is a magnet for intrigue.

He is currently governor of the Board of Investments (BOI) of the Department of Trade and Industry. As BOI governor, he sits as chairman of the Philippine Retirement Authority (PRA) and alternate ex officio board member of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) for Batangas concerns. Both positions have dragged him into controversy.

Links to Contractor

As PPA alternate board member, Leviste figured in the row between rival bidders for the 2.9-billion-peso Batangas port project in 2001. Korean-based Hanjin-Konoike joint venture alluded to him as the “influential political figure” who interfered in the board decision to award the project to an “unqualified bidder,” joint venture partners Shimizu and F.F. Cruz.

Legarda defended her husband at that time. In a newspaper article, she was quoted as saying that he merely “resolved some problems. (But) he is not assigned to pick the bidder.” But as alternate member of the PPA board, Leviste had voting rights, a former DTI insider said.

Records of the Securities and Exchange Commission reveal a link between Leviste and Legarda and Felipe Cruz, owner of F.F. Cruz. All three were incorporators and stockholders of the Batangas Port Planners and Developers Inc. (BPPDI) and the Batangas International Seaport Development Corporation. The BPPDI was the Public Estate Authority’s contractor in reclaiming the land where the port is now being constructed.

To Leviste’s credit, the Shimuzu/F.F. Cruz joint venture’s bid was the lowest bid received by the PPA public bids and awards committee (PBAC). The PBAC initially declared the Shimuzu/F.F Cruz bid as unqualified due to technical errors in the bidding documents, thus the award to Hanjin, the second lowest bidder.

Soon after he became chairman of the PRA last year, another controversy erupted, this time between Bankwise—a thrift bank where President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s former publicist, Dante Ang, has a substantial interest—and the PRA Members Association (PRAMA). What dragged Leviste’s name into the picture was his link to Jose Marcelo Jr.: the latter was one of those who drew funds from PRAMA’s Bankwise accounts without the association’s authorization.

Marcelo became deputy general manager of PLRA (Leviste changed PRA to Philippine Leisure and Retirement Authority or PLRA) in March 2002, soon after Leviste assumed its chairmanship). Sources say he and Leviste have long been close confidants. Marcelo is chair of Batangas Bay Developers Inc., the company listed as owner of titles to Fortune Island.

At that time, the PLRA and PRAMA were in the middle of a court battle over retirees’ funds. When NEWSBREAK checked with PRAMA on how Marcelo got embroiled in the mess, its officer in charge, Rica Mepaña, said that Marcelo had been helping them with the PLRA-PRAMA case, which was still in court at that time. Why Marcelo was doing this when he was supposed to be an employee of PLRA is unclear.

Asked about this, Leviste responded, “I don’t want to get involved. It all happened before my time.” Marcelo still holds the position at PLRA.

Eyeing the PLRA

Leviste wanted the PLRA post and he apparently got the backing of President Macapagal. He said that the President wanted him to turn the agency around because she was impressed with what he had done at the PPA.

Leviste claims that the President appointed him to the PLRA by virtue of Executive Order 26 (EO26)—but Trade and Industry Secretary Mar Roxas did not act on his appointment immediately. The executive order, however, did not specifically appoint Leviste as chair of what was then still PRA. What it merely did was transfer the PRA from the Office of the President to the BOI. This meant that the DTI secretary has the authority to appoint the next head of the agency.

If the President wanted Leviste to head the agency in the first place, why didn’t she appoint him to the post directly?

Leviste actually suggested this course of action in his memo to the President dated Oct. 16, 2001. In the memorandum, he complained to the President because, “I have not yet been designated as an alternate of Sec. Mar Roxas. It appears he is still analyzing the situation.” He recommended that she either “instruct Sec. Roxas to appoint the undersigned immediately” or “rescind EO 26 and simply appoint the undersigned as Chairman of the PRA.” Through a marginal note, the President instructed the DTI secretary to “appoint him already.”

The first and last election Leviste won was in 1972–when he bagged the post of vice governor of Batangas province. The governor died shortly after the elections—allowing Leviste to become governor. Martial law allowed him to stay in power up to 1980.

During the 1980 elections, he ran for governor under the ruling Kilusang Bagong Lipunan coalition but lost to Jose Laurel V. He appealed the election’s outcome up to the Supreme Court to no avail.

He ran again in the 1987 elections, this time for a seat in Congress representing the third district of Batangas. He lost. In 1992, he joined Miriam Defensor Santiago’s People’s Reform Party and ran for a Senate seat. Both he and the Ilongga presidential candidate lost. That was the last electoral post he vied for.

Faced with successive electoral defeats, he focused his efforts on getting his wife elected instead.

He is not listed as one of the contributors to her campaign kitty, Legarda’s statement of election contributions and expenditures show. The role (strategist and fundraiser) he played in her senatorial campaign is widely acknowledged however. The couple admitted that it was Leviste who really wanted Legarda to run.

‘Yours for the Taking’

To make his point, Leviste hung an apple from their bedroom ceiling. When a perplexed Legarda asked him what the apple was for, he told her “It’s just like the Senate seat. It’s yours for the taking if you want it.”

She finally did run for Senate and topped the race in the 1998 elections. But she does not have fire in the belly for politics, she said during the interview, and she could easily change careers.

As far as her husband is concerned, however, the Senate seat is just the starting point. Long before his wife won, Leviste’s eyes were already trained on a bigger prize: Malacañang. Late in 1997, Leviste dangled to a young lawyer he was trying to recruit a possible judicial seat “kapag presidente na si Loren.” The lawyer declined the offer.

Though she admits to asking for his advice before making political decisions, the senator insists, “It’s up to me to decide whether I should follow it or not. As a rule I don’t have to consult him. I am only answerable to the people.” The much-publicized tiff between the couple over Legarda’s vote against the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement jibes with this (Leviste wanted her to support the pact).

Many attest that the Senate majority leader has a mind of her own. Her performance during the impeachment case of President Joseph Estrada impressed many. But some wonder if she would stand in the way of her husband’s interests.

“My wife and I agree that she will not get involved in my business and I will not interfere in her politics,” Leviste explained.

Asked if she makes it a point to know what he is doing, she replied, “Not necessarily. I don’t have the time. How can I even try to find out what he’s doing at BOI or the PRA or his business when I don’t even have sufficient time for myself and for my work and all the things that we have to do?”

Recently, she caused a stir by dropping the Leviste name. To political enthusiasts, this meant that the former broadcast journalist—who has been figuring in the surveys as one of the top vice presidential bets—considers the name a liability. She denied this. She said she went back to the Legarda surname to enhance name recall because she had been introduced to the public as a Legarda anyway: “I have never been Leviste.”

But Leviste said that “he has given up [trying to persuade] her [to run for president].” However, if she moves up the political ladder, he will simply disappear from the scene. “I could be exiled to Morocco. That’s what she threatened to do to me.”

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