September 01, 2021 at 12:00 am
J.A. Dela Cruz
"I am told that it was at the HLURB where Lao showed his true mettle."
Embattled former DBM Undersecretary and Procurement Service (PS) Executive Director Llyod Christopher Lao is really a true-blue volunteer. He belongs to that rare breed of volunteers populating the administration who marched with and manned the ramparts of the then crusading Duterte campaign. That volunteer group to which Lao belonged was composed of two closely knit intersecting sets —those from the Lex Tallonis Fraternitas, the dominant San Beda College of Law-based fraternity. The other group is composed of Davao-based Duterte loyalists. Lao belonged to both groups.
My sources say that being from Davao he must have been known to President Duterte and Senator Bong Go. He also volunteered in a number of the many political battles they mounted during their decades-long reign in the city.
Headed by such stalwarts as then-Justice Secretary Vit Aguirre and PAGCOR COO Fred Lim, to name just two of the more prominent members, among the dozens who were eventually conscripted into the Duterte administration. I am not sure if Executive Secretary Bingbong Medialdea and his San Beda Law classmate, former SSS Commissioner Gonz Duque, also belonged to the fraternity. Two of the more recognizable faces who graced the headlines in the early years of the administration were younger members, former BID Associate Commissioners
Al Argosino and Mark Robles. Both of whom were charged and dismissed from the service for their role in the so-called Jack Lam fiasco.
To no one’s surprise, given the honor and prestige which the fraternity brought to its members since its inception, it eventually branched out to other law schools including Ateneo de Davao where Lao got his degrees. His schoolmates and fraternity brothers included Roy Rigor and Ysbong Torentino, both of whom decided to stay put in Davao when Lao and the others decided to try their luck in the incoming Duterte administration. Rigor eventually served as Mayor Inday Sara’s city administrator (am not sure now if he remains so) while Torentino maintained his law practice in the city.
As fate would have it, Lao and a group of other volunteers from Davao and other places were asked to assist in manning the newly created Office of the Special Assistant to the President, a Cabinet level office headed by now Senator Bong Go. We recall that at the start of the Duterte presidency, the Office of the President was manned by three Cabinet level offices—the Office of the Executive Secretary (OES), the traditional center of operations headed by Medialdea; the Cabinet Secretariat (CabSec), headed by then Secretary Jun Evasco and OSAP which included the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) headed by Go.
For a while, these offices had very clear, distinct responsibilities but, as Malacanang insiders and others transacting any business with the President eventually found out, the center of gravity slowly but surely inched towards the OSAP.
That was the time when the Evasco allies in the Cabinet, namely DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, DAR Secretary Paeng Mariano and Presidential Anti-Poverty Commission Secretary Lisa Maza resigned over a number of disputes associated with the ongoing anti-insurgency and anti-drug campaigns. At one point, this “ redistribution” of powers and influence came to even starker light when then Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque publicly denounced his being “ left out holding the bag” on the issue of President Duterte’s whereabouts after an extended period of absence from public view.
In any event, Lao must have thanked his stars as it turned out the office he volunteered to serve in inched forward to take center stage. My sources tell me that he served concurrently as PMS Undersecretary and vice chairman of the search committee vetting all presidential appointees including those nominated to serve in government owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs). As vice chairman, he had quite an outsize influence over the administrative state across the board holding sway over the appointments and promotions of more than 5,000 (some people tell me closer to 10,000) presidential appointees from assistant bureau directors to heads and members of the boards of the GOCCs. Holding sway over such a huge bureaucracy was no small potatoes even if one is just a member of the search committee. And Lao mastered it to the hilt even outsmarting, per my sources, the other working members like Andy Lo and Jenny Ong.
Even as he enjoyed such influence and closeness to the powers-that-be in Malacanang, Lao apparently had his eyes beyond the confines of the Palace. Whether he was asked to take on another major task or he simply volunteered to say goodbye to his associates at the OSAP and PMS, he eventually got appointed as Commissioner and CEO of the housing regulatory body, Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB), which held sway over all property developments outside of the socialized housing mandate of the National Housing Authority (NHA).and on top of the government’s housing financing arms like SHDP but not the Pag-Ibig Fund (Home Finance Mortgage Fund) which has its own charter.
I am told that it was at the HLURB where Lao showed his true mettle as both a steadfast Duterte loyalist and a savvy operator. He showed his boss in his first volunteer job, then Secretary Bong Go, what kind of an adjutant he was and could become. Records of the major housing operations during his time at the agency show that he managed to simplify (most say short cutting or bending) the rules or otherwise make things increasingly burdensome as and when the times called for it. Sources say, he was at the forefront of such innovations as massive conversions of farmlands, CLOAS and, at times, even timberlands into housing developments. He was also fond, I am told, of tweaking conditionalities for pre-selling through the agency’s issuance of licenses to sell (LTS) for which such terms as escrow accounts and reciprocal swaps came into vogue. Indeed, as billions poured into housing developments not only in the urban centers but in their influenced areas, so did all the talk about tweaking and escrows came into light.
In Part 2, I will discuss the last days of Lao at the HLURB and his ill-fated stint at the PS/DBM.
To be continued