Earlier this week, a video recorded during the launch ceremony for the Sunchamp Agri-Tourism Park in Batangas was posted on YouTube. The clip, not quite two minutes long, shows Senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV offering congratulations to his “good friend” Tony Tiu, the founder and CEO of Agrinuture Inc. (ANI), who developed the park.
The Sunchamp park, of course, is the 350-hectare property at the center of a controversy created by Trillanes, fellow Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel 3rd and former Makati City Vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado over the alleged “ill-gotten wealth” of Vice President Jejomar Binay. Trillanes, the former Navy supply clerk who led two buffoonish failed coup attempts and was elected to the Senate from inside a detention cell, has accused his “good friend” Tiu of being a dummy, or a front, for Binay to hide the latter’s true ownership of the impressive property.
Tiu hotly denied that charge in public this week, beseeching the Senate subcommittee conducting the Binay inquisition to “not play with our lives for the sake of political grandstanding,” in a statement signed by the ANI Employees’ Cooperative, ANI suppliers, distributors, and just about anyone else that has anything at all to do with the company. ANI directly employs about 5,000 people, and supports a farmer and merchant network that Tiu says numbers well over 100,000.
According to available SEC records and other company disclosures, the story concocted by Mercado and Trillanes is a complete fabrication, one that was uncritically taken at face value by at least one major newspaper and a couple of well-known veteran political journalists. Unfortunately for them, that accomplished nothing but to add to their reputation of being completely irresponsible at times. Tiu himself has announced that he appear before the Senate panel to refute the charges directly.
What makes the situation maddening is that, barring the revelation of some hard evidence of what would have to be a large-scale and extremely complicated fraud carried out by Binay, Tiu, and several hundred other stakeholders of ANI—which is unlikely to say the least, given the zeal with which Mercado, Trillanes, et al. have seized on any shred of irregularity, real or imagined, on Binay’s part—the situation boils down to a case of a company having its reputation publicly smeared for the thinnest of circumstantial reasons: A simple deal between the Binay family and ANI to transfer a small parcel of land to the latter sometime last century. ANI since has become a progressive and reasonably successful enterprise, and in the context of the dire need for agricultural development in the Philippines, one of the country’s more socially acceptable companies as well.
And to add insult to injury, the unwarranted attack is being publicly carried out by personalities who are largely immune to any legal response by ANI. Not that it would make much difference anyway; the damage has been done. The best outcome ANI could hope for is for the contrived scandal to fade from public attention quickly to minimize the impact on its future business, while its existing customers and partners simply overlook it for now.
To my knowledge, there is nobody in this country, myself and other public critics included, who is actively working to discourage business investment and expansion, even if ideas about how best to encourage those things differ. Those who believe that a realistic, no-BS assessment of the business environment, an honest picture of what a prospective investor or entrepreneur is “getting himself into” has more value in the long run can provide a useful risk analysis. We can explain how to accommodate or work around faulty infrastructure, inefficient and time-consuming regulatory requirements, traffic congestion, unfavorable tax regimes, a challenging climate, even the inevitable low-level corruption encountered when dealing with local government officials.
But there is no way to describe a work-around for something like ANI has encountered, and until now, there has been no reason to anticipate it. Sonny Trillanes is a Senator of the Republic; the job description, even in this country, does not include, “May officially endorse your project with his presence, and then later, without warning, accuse you of gross violations of the law while grinding a political ax against someone with whom you have little to no actual business.” Yet, that apparently is now a legitimate risk, and since the country on the whole does not show any inclination to suddenly stop voting for self-aggrandizing, ignorant yahoos, it is a risk that we will now have to add to our list of “unique problems one may face while doing business in the Philippines” and try to find solutions.
Anyone have any ideas? Because I for one am completely stumped.