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MANILA — Many years ago, he built one for the first lady, a sprawling mansion at 1 Polk St. in North Greenhills in San Juan. Expanded and renovated over the years, the official family home now covers three adjoining lots with a total area of 2,000 square meters. There, surrounded by his collection of expensive crystal, Estrada likes to hold court for his clan and cronies.

To mark the 95th birthday of his mother, Mary, last May, the president had her Greenhills home refurbished, a major renovation that converted the family matriarch’s large, comfortable quarters into something close to palatial: high ceilings, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and a cavernous living room with a grand piano and exorbitantly-priced beige curtains.

Last year, the president’s mother celebrated her birthday in a two-story villa owned by the Ejercitos in Laguna. Built in 1912, the house had fallen to neglect after the Second World War. On the president’s orders, however, well-known architect Chito Antonio gave it a facelift, the results of which were featured earlier this year in the glossy architectural magazine BluPrint.

“Traditional elements were restored: capiz windows [characterized by a large, thin, flat translucent shell common in Philippine coastal waters], the noble wooden floor, and decorative ceiling details,” the magazine reported. The “Palace in Pagsanjan,” as BluPrint called the villa, is apparently intended more as a “cultural landmark” than to be lived in. It boasts of a luxurious living room flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows and adorned with modern paintings. Estrada’s bedroom, BluPrint noted, has an “exquisitely carved four-poster narra bed,” billowing drapes and French windows looking out to the garden.

Whether it is his own home or that of his mother or one of his wives, the president’s architectural and design preferences tend toward opulence — heavy draperies, antiques, carved wood and crystal. All these of course add up to princely sums. But especially extravagant, say those who have seen them, are the more recent constructions attributed to either Estrada or one of his special women.

These homes have been described consistently as being done in a style in which it was obvious that cost was not a concern. For instance, says an interior designer, a house supposedly for one of the presidential wives, in New Manila, Quezon City, features a swimming pool with real sand and a machine that churns artificial waves.

A two-story mansion being built on a 5,000-square-meter lot on Harvard Street in Wack Wack, Mandaluyong, has a mini-theater, a gym, a sauna and three kitchens on the ground floor and another upstairs. Until the furor over the construction made it too controversial, this house was supposedly designed especially for Laarni Enriquez, a long-time Estrada companion, and her three children.

As far as we can ascertain, Estrada was already a wealthy man before he assumed the presidency. The dimensions of his wealth, however, are not reflected in his asset statements, and the president seems to think it unnecessary to go into any detail on just where he is getting the money to indulge what looks like an edifice complex. Not even when it is already raising eyebrows in Manila’s gossipy caf society.

After all, constructions such as these in some of the poshest parts of town are difficult to hide. The houses themselves — sprawling, palatial and luxurious — demand attention. That these houses are supposedly being built for women other than the first lady only spices up the talk.

Most important, these constructions are taking place in the first two years of the Estrada presidency. The 5,000-square meter Wack-Wack property, according to land records, was bought in 1998 by presidential friend, businessman Jacinto Ng, when he took over KB Space Holdings, a company owned by the Roxas-Chua family, the original owners of the property. Construction on the site began in 1999. The New Manila property, land records show, was purchased from the Madrigal family only late last year.

Highlights of ‘The State of the President’s Finances’

  • President Joseph Estrada’s declared net worth of P35.8 million (U.S. $716,000) and net income of P2.3 million ($46,000) in 1999 cannot explain the extravagant lifestyle and varied business interests of his families. Altogether, Estrada and his wives and children are listed as shareholders of 66 companies. The assets of 14 companies alone are worth P600 million ($12 million).
  • Estrada did not declare in his statements of assets since 1987 his and his wife’s shareholdings in 11 companies, including Millennium Cinema, Inc., formed in1999 and now among the country’s top movie production outfits.
  • Many of these businesses involve transactions with, and regulation by, government agencies. As such, they raise thorny conflict of interest issues for the president.
  • The first two years of the Estrada presidency saw a burst of entrepreneurial energies among his families, who formed 11 new companies since 1998.
  • Guia Gomez appears to be the most entrepreneurial of the president’s wives; SEC records show 33 companies in which she is listed as a shareholder and incorporator. Her core businesses are real estate and trading. She owns at least seven real estate companies with combined authorized capital of P200 million ($4 million).
  • Several of Gomez’s business partners are now in government. These include Julius Topacio, undersecretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government and assistant executive secretary for budget and corporate affairs; presidential assistant Rosario Yu, Lucio Tan’s ex-secretary; former presidential assistant Cecilia Ejercito de Castro, Estrada’s cousin who was implicated in a P200 million ($4 million) textbook scandal in 1999; presidential brother-in-law Raul de Guzman, the presidential adviser on development administration; Raul Roberto de Guzman, presidential assistant for environment and water; and Jose Fernando B. Camus, board member of the Bases Conversion Development Authority.
  • Estrada’s son, JV Ejercito, was a partner in a short-lived construction venture of Dante Tan and the other founders of BW Resources, which is currently being investigated for insider trading and stock manipulation. Ejercito’s name is listed as shareholder in 18 companies. The assets of his construction firm, Buildworth, grew from P14 million ($280,000) in 1997 to P83.3 million ($1,666,000) in 1998.

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