Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla on Friday said he will ask President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to dismiss suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Gerald Bantag if he gets the chance.
Bantag, who has been tagged as the mastermind in the murder of broadcast commentator Percival Mabasa, a.k.a. Percy Lapid, has refused to surrender and has issued statements attacking Remulla, saying he was being set up.
Remulla said it wasn’t urgent that Bantag be fired because he was already under preventive suspension and was the subject of a hold departure order.
Remulla said the Office of the Ombudsman will be asked to investigate the legality of the joint venture agreement between Bantag and a private corporation for the development of the New Bilibid Prison’s more than 300-hectare reservation in Muntinlupa City.
“It’s our duty to inform the Ombudsman on these developments because apparently some of them were not within the legal bounds,” Remulla told reporters.
Bantag earlier admitted that he had signed a JVA with the Nueva Ecija-based ATOM Corporation for the donation of a 234-hectare property where the NBP could be relocated.
In exchange, Bantag said, ATOM will develop the NBP reservation and BuCor will receive 35 percent of the earnings in the development.
“Motu proprio (on its own), the Ombudsman can conduct an investigation. We will cooperate,” Remulla said.
The Justice Secretary noted that the JVA was “done as an independent republic of BuCor dealing with the private sector.”
“Bantag did not involve the DOJ, the Office of the President and the Department of Finance,” he said.
Remulla pointed out that the NBP reservation is a patrimonial property of the Philippines and it belongs to the people and, thus, cannot be disposed of by a single person.
“Privatization has to go through the council. It has to go through the Department of Finance. It has to be approved by the secretary of Justice; it has to be approved by the President. It has many approval processes,” Remulla said.
Remulla said he learned that the JVA was done in 2020, when President Rodrigo Duterte was still in office and when Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra was still Justice secretary. Remulla also pointed out that the BuCor Modernization Law cannot be used as basis for the JVA.
“The law does not give plenary powers to anybody to dispose of government property. It has to go through a process,” Remulla said.
Guevarra admitted that he was aware about the JVA between the BuCor and ATOM when he was still Justice secretary.
“I was made aware of it after the JVA had been signed by BuCor and ATOM. I sent a memo to DG Bantag telling him to hold off any further action until the DOJ had reviewed the proposed transaction.”
“Eventually my office found that the unsolicited proposal failed to comply with certain legal requirements, and we informed the Office of the Executive Secretary accordingly. Since then, we have not heard about this project. It might have been discontinued,” Guevarra said in a text message to reporters.
Remulla, meanwhile, said the excavation found at the New Bilibid Prison compound in Muntinlupa City was not intended to be an escape tunnel.
“That was supposed to be a hunt for Yamashita treasure originally. I was told by Director General Bantag and I told him to stop it,” Remulla said in an interview, referring to war loot that was left behind in World War II by Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita in the Philippines.
The excavation at the NBP reservation was disclosed by BuCor Officer-in-Charge Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. who said the tunnel has a
depth of 30 meters with a width of about 300 meters and it leads to where the headquarters of the director general is located.
But Catapang did not answer a question on whether the tunnel in the excavation was intended as an escape route.
In his comment on Catapang’s revelation, Bantag said the excavation was done to build a diving pool for underwater rescue training by BuCor personnel who are also tapped during disasters and calamities.
“Bantag told me about the excavation sometime before August or September,” Remulla recalled.
“He opened it up to me and I told him to stop it,” he said, even as he described the purpose of the excavation as “ridiculous.”
“You are there not to seek for treasure. You are there to run the corrections department,” Remulla said he told Bantag.
He said he has no idea if Bantag found anything. “Besides, you are wasting government time and money. I don’t know if government time and money was spent but that is ridiculous for me,” he said.
Remulla refused to address Bantag’s challenge for him to resign from office, supposedly because he has lost moral ascendancy to run the Justice department due to the involvement of his son Juanito Jose in drug charges.
The younger Remulla is facing a drug possession case before a Las Piñas court and underwent preliminary investigation in Pasay for importation of illegal drugs after he was caught receiving a controlled delivery of almost a kilogram of high-grade marijuana or kush.