It’s safe to assume that Florin Hilbay is an above-average lawyer, or he would not have made it as solicitor general in the previous administration. But sometimes, even the best legal minds can fall flat on their faces, as Hilbay did last week.
Reacting to reports that tycoon Lucio Tan’s Philippine Airlines had agreed to pay the government P6 billion in terminal and other fees it owed over many years, Hilbay was decidedly downbeat. Instead of rejoicing because the Duterte administration had successfully dunned someone who owed the state money, Hilbay intoned on Twitter as @fthilbay:
“Take special note of this Admin’s fixation with immediate cash—Mighty Corp., Uber, Lucio Tan’s PAL—and the way it’s done: arm-twisting.”
Given the space limitations inherent in the social media platform he was using, Hilbay was unable to explain himself further. I would have loved to read an entire legal brief written by him on the subject matter, assuming he is up to it now that he is no longer burdened with the demands of his former job as the top lawyer of the government.
So I guess all of us will have to be content with what Hilbay tweeted, such as it is. And I am of the belief that the former Sol-Gen merely got caught up in the current craze of spreading fake news, instead of declaring a well thought-out legal opinion as befits his former position.
In the cases cited by Hilbay, the government earned a total of P36.19 billion. Broken down, that’s P30 billion from cigarette manufacturer Mighty, in penalties for tax evasion and other similar offenses; P6 billion from PAL for unpaid use of the government’s airports and other facilities; and P190 million from Uber, the company that developed the ride-sharing application, as punishment for accepting applicants for its service despite an order from the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board.
To Hilbay’s list, I would add Sunvar Realty, the company owned by the Prieto family, which was forced to vacate the government-owned Mile Long property in Makati on the basis of court orders that have not been enforced simply because the real estate outfit’s proprietors also counted the powerful Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper as one of their assets. There is no valuation yet for the prime property, which President Rodrigo Duterte had vowed to recover from the Prietos in order to convert it into a mass-housing project that will presumably run almost the entire length of Amorsolo Street in high-rent Makati City.
But in the Mile Long case, it is important to point out that the eviction orders in favor of the government were personally served on Sunvar and its clients—including, I’m told, long-time lessees who had somehow secured titles to their units —by Hilbay’s successor-in-office, current Solicitor General Jose Calida. And Calida’s involvement in the Mile Long case speaks volumes about how clueless (or Machiavellian, if you want) Hilbay’s tweet really was.
* * *
It is true that Duterte himself was involved in the collection of the unpaid revenues due to the government in all of these cases, except that of Uber, which was an LTFRB initiative. But that is about the only thing that Hilbay got right.
Note that instead of commending Duterte for his contribution to the government’s collection effort, Hilbay criticizes the president for his “fixation with immediate cash” and for “arm-twisting.” This is fake news in the extreme.
I don’t know where Hilbay got the idea that a government that collects what is due it under the law is fixated with immediate cash, especially since, like in the case of PAL and Sunvar, decades have passed and several court cases have already been resolved in the state’s favor against the other parties. And those decades included the six years of the government that Hilbay served in as Sol-Gen, a government which never acted fast enough to prosecute or penalize any “big fish” that didn’t have their taxes withheld at the source (as in, even before they get paid) just like you, me and millions of other wage earners.
I will never understand why Hilbay’s co-worker in the previous government, Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, was so gung-ho about pursuing tax cases against high-profile individuals like Manny Pacquiao while not uttering a peep about Mighty. I don’t know how the two Aquino-era transportation secretaries, Mar Roxas and Joseph Emilio Abaya, could destroy the perfectly working public transportation infrastructure they inherited from their own predecessors yet not collect a centavo from PAL.
Lastly, I fail to understand how Hilbay could not have acted on the court decisions against the Prietos’ Sunvar when his successor Calida was able to evict the beneficiaries of this Marcos-era sweetheart deal in just a little over a year after he assumed the Sol-Gen position.
I certainly hope that none of these officials merely failed to collect what was due to the government because they had entered into private arrangements with the people they were supposed to be dunning for “immediate” cash. But then, I’m not a great lawyer like Hilbay.
And so I nominate Hilbay for the post of most intellectually challenged “Yellow” of the moment, at a point in time when that title is always being heatedly contested by the other, equally noisy—and equally boneheaded—officials of Noynoy Aquino. Do I hear any disagreement?