Senate investigations into allegedly fraudulent transactions involving state coffers captivate the imagination of the public. Here, culprits are exposed and later punished when found guilty by the justice system.
Laws may be crafted after the probes to address loopholes on public spending. Lawmakers conducting such investigations in aid of legislation are duty-bound to delve deeper into the core of abuses and anomalies on public spending. But what if Senate inquiries fail to live up to public expectations?
Take the case of the final hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on the Department of Education (DepEd)’s alleged “pricey and outdated” laptops. It turned out to be a dud.
Its panel chair, Senator Francis Tolentino, earlier hinted of a “bombshell” during the hearing and of text messages that would prove to be “damaging” to several officials involved in the controversy.
Instead, what spectators witnessed were education officials pointing fingers at each other when presented with screenshots of text messages exchanged among them regarding the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the DepEd and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM), which was tasked to procure the laptop units.
Tolentino apparently wanted to show that long before the bidding for the laptop contract took place, there were already several irregularities involved in the MOA.
What Tolentino wanted to prove was already the subject of four earlier hearings of the committee. The entire morning was spent scrutinizing the exchanges of text messages among DepEd officials. It turned out that the screenshots of the text messages submitted to the committee were incomplete and some messages were deleted, as pointed out by DepEd Undersecretary for Finance Annalyn Sevilla. So much for Tolentino’s so-called “pasabog” or bombshell.
Nonetheless, the blue ribbon committee’s five hearings clearly indicate that any alleged irregularity or wrongdoing were on the part of the DepEd and the PS-DBM.
The supplier cannot be faulted for any misdeeds committed by the officials involved in the controversy. Its role was limited to complying with the terms of reference and requirements specified by the procuring entity during the bidding process, and fulfill the provisions of its awarded contract.
Meanwhile, one of the alleged favored suppliers, Advance Solutions Inc. (ASI), was the losing bidder in the laptop contract being investigated by the Blue Ribbon Committee. ASI had already bagged several deals amounting to about P6 billion from the DepEd, and had hoped to also win the latest contract in question.
An ASI representative was given the chance to tell the committee that his company’s offer was better. But Tolentino failed to dig deep as to why this offer was rejected. The supplier, which got the contract, was able to commit to providing onsite support, replacements for defective laptops and delivery to the DepEd regional offices. Was ASI able to commit these same requirements? Tolentino did not ask this question.
Instead, Tolentino focused on the winning supplier’s supposed tax liabilities and other concerns that strayed far from the core issues involved in the inquiry.
In presentations and in the testimonies of COA officials during the hearings, there was no allegation whatsoever that the winning supplier failed to comply with the requirements and technical specifications of the DepEd in the purchase and delivery of the laptop units.
The supplier merely complied with the requirements set by the DepEd and cannot be blamed if there were irregularities surrounding the pre-bidding stage of the laptop contract.
No robust competition
Over at the House of Representatives, congressmen are set to investigate the alleged backdoor entry of Grab into the government’s motorcycle taxi pilot study after acquiring Move It—one of the three companies given special accreditation by the Department of Transportation’s Technical Working Group (DOTr-TWG).
Manila 3rd district Representative and lawyer Joel Chua earlier heeded the call of transport, civic and rider groups to open a congressional inquiry regarding Grab’s acquisition of Move It. They fear the purchase will tarnish the government’s three-year old pilot program and cause delays in the passage of the Motorcycle Taxi bill into law. They are also concerned about the welfare of riders given Grab’s history of alleged unfair labor practices.
It will be best for the DOTr-TWG to suspend Move It from the government pilot study and temporarily hold its accreditation pending a congressional investigation. Move It is operating using Grab’s platform. It is unabashedly promoting free and open competition when, in reality, it does not recognize regulators.
Move It chairman Francis Juan said the motorcycle taxi industry should be open to multiple companies to ensure healthy competition that will benefit both the riders and commuters. But this is one of the main objectives of the pilot study.
Grab and Move It have basically pre-empted the pilot study. Their transaction clearly does not promote robust competition. With how things are going, one could perceive that it is more about domination. It happened with Uber before—it can happen again.
The government wants to rationalize the operation of motorcycle taxis in the Philippines. Millions of Filipinos benefit from moto taxis—whether it be for livelihood, cheaper commute or for the sake of convenience. The state wants a competitive motorcycle taxi industry that is safe, reliable and fair to riders and commuters. This is the heart and soul of the pilot study.
Pushing for open, fair, and healthy competition, however, is moot and academic at this point because everything is still being determined.
Lawyer Ariel Inton, founder of the Lawyers for Commuters Safety and Protection, one of the groups urging Congress to investigate the Grab-Move It acquisition, said it best: Move It should get out of the pilot test pending an investigation.
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