MRT head cleared of $30-m extort try

Abaya preempts NBI: Czech’s claim baseless

TRANSPORTATION and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya on Sunday cleared Metro Rail Transit general manager Al Vitangcol III of administrative charges over allegations that he tried to extort $30 million from a Czech company, preempting the findings of a National Bureau of Investigation probe.

“We found no basis to charge Mr. Vitangcol administratively. Unless there is new evidence that will come out, then we will look into the case again,” Abaya said over an interview with radio dzBB.

Abaya said when he reported the complaint raised by Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtaf to President Benigno Aquino III, the Chief Executive suggested that the NBI investigate the case.

“I immediately agreed with the President so that we will not be accused of whitewashing or clearing [Vitangcol]. A third party could conduct an impartial investigation. We are awaiting the NBI findings,” Abaya said.

The Palace on Sunday ordered the NBI to expedite its nine-month probe into the alleged extortion attempt.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma added that the Palace will not prevent Vitangcol from attending any congressional inquiry in the event that Congress initiates an independent probe.

Coloma made the statement days after Rychtar named Vitangcol as the mastermind of the extortion attempt.

Rychtar also accused Abaya of sitting on the probe that he promised to conduct after the extortion attempt was first disclosed in the media in July last year.

“We are all awaiting the completion of the NBI process,” Coloma said.

Abaya’s decision to exonerate Vitangcol administratively came amid Rychtar’s report to Congress that the MRT official had tried to force a 60-40 joint venture with Inekon, the Czech company that refused to pay $30 million to bag the P3.77 billion contract to supply new coaches to the MRT.

The Filipino company composed of Vitangcol’s men eventually offered a joint venture to the Chinese company that bagged the supply contract, Rychtaf said.

On July 10, 2012, the day after Vitangcol and his “envoy” Wilson de Vera brought up the $30 million demand, Rychtar said he and the Inekon executives were surprised when Vitangcol met them in his office with a new agreement for a joint venture ready for signing.

Rychtar described De Vera as an “envoy of Mr. Vitangcol since he behaved like that at an official dinner.”

De Vera was the ruling Liberal Party’s mayoralty candidate in Pangasinan but lost his bid in the 2013 polls.

Abaya, acting LP president, denied personally knowing De Vera.

Vitangcol was appointed by then Transportation and Communications Secretary and now Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel Roxas II as general manager of MRT3.

Roxas’ successor, Abaya, chose to retain Vitangcol.

Roxas, then the LP president, transferred the title to Abaya when he was appointed to head the Deparrmtne of Interior and Local Government.

“Mr. Vitangcol asked whether we accepted the proposal put forward by Mr. Wilson de Vera the day before. Furthermore, he immediately and insistently proposed to sign an agreement establishing a joint venture of Inekon Group and people suggested by Mr. Vitangcol. The joint venture would constitute Inekon Group’s partner in the Philippines with 60 percent of its shares held by Inekon Group and 40 percent of its shares held by people proposed by Mr. Vitangcol and its purpose would be to assume the contract for maintenance of MRT which was soon up for renewal,” said Josef Husek, Inekon president.

Rychtar submitted his affidavit and the “witness statement” executed by Husek to the House committee on good government and public accountability chaired by Rep. Osacar Rodriguez, a Liberal.

“We refused both offers. This made Mr. Vitangcol apparently upset and in a few minutes we left his office without any follow up on the negotiations,” Husek said.

Husek said on their way back to the hotel, Rychtar received a text message informing them that Vitangcol and De Vera were furious because Inekon rejected their offers.

“According to that message, MRT would never do any business with Inekon Group in the future,” Husek said.

“I, as the Ambassador of the Czech Republic, confirmed that an extortion attempt took place in July 2012 followed by other suspicious circumstances which led to a questionable bidding process in March 2013,” Rychtar told the Rodriguez panel.

“I wish to inform you... that the Czech company Inekon Group was, of course, not blacklisted officially by DoTC, but we did receive the informal information that our proposal will not be entertained which I manifested by the fact that our letters to DoTC remained unanswered,” Rychtar said.

The Czech ambassador said these developments led him to believe that the bidding was rigged against the Czech company.

The ambassador said he eventually took his case to Abaya in a two-hour meeting on April 11.

In the meeting, he said, Abaya said Rychtar’s claims were “incredible” and vehemently denied the ambassador’s claim. He also took the envoy to task for dragging the President’s family into the controversy.

Abaya denied the ambassador’s claim.

“You know me. It’s not in my character and my personality. In fact, I only raise my voice to my kids to teach them the important lessons in life. I don’t even raise my voice to my wife,” Abaya told the Manila Standard.

Abaya said he was not out to preempt the NBI investigation.

“An administrative case is different from a criminal case. Likewise when we did our administrative fact-finding, there was no formal complaint. We had a statement from Vitangcol and private individuals,” Abaya said.

“Unlike NBI, we don’t have compulsory processes such as power to issue summons and subpoena over private individuals. We can merely invite on a voluntary basis. If they don’t want to participate, we cannot compel. We invited the ambassador but he opted not to participate,” Abaya told the Manila Standard.

He said he was eagerly awaiting the findings of the NBI probe.

Abaya said he believed there was an orchestrated media campaign to smear the administration with the MRT case.

He said he did not know what Rychtar’s agenda was, but noted that the Czech ambassador’s tour of duty was about to end.

Abaya said he expected the controversy to end once the NBI came out with its findings.

“The NBI findings would put an end to the issue. If there are those found guilty, it is right to charge them and pursue the cases,” Abaya said.

“However, if the NBI finds no evidence of extortion, then no one would believe the allegations because two agencies already ruled against them—the NBI and the DoTC,” Abaya said.

On Friday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the NBI has wrapped up its investigation, but said the report is still being reviewed by the legal division.

“Since this is a high profile case, they might clear it with me before it is finally released. So I am actually waiting for it,” De Lima said.

The Palace said it would respect the right of Congress to conduct its own investigation.

“We will just be watching closely, in the hope that any probe would result in finding out the truth,” Coloma said.

Earlier, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda questioned the veracity of Rychtar’s claim, saying the ambassador lied in saying that that Abaya shouted at him over the phone after presidential sister Ballsy

Aquino-Cruz and her husband Eldon were dragged into the scandal.

Lacierda also accused Rychtar of not cooperating in the administrative probe initiated by the Department of Transportation and Communications against Vitangcol.

“He (Abaya) never called up Ambassador Rychtar. In fact, they texted each other, I have the series of text exchanges between Ambassador Rychtar and Secretary Jun Abaya. At no point did he ever call him up and shout at him. And I personally know Secretary Jun Abaya and the members of the House of Representatives know what kind of a person Jun Abaya is. He doesn’t shout,” Lacierda said.

The ambassador, in a television interview last week, said Vitangcol appeared to be “protected” as the MRT head was not sanctioned for masterminding the attempt to squeeze grease money from Czech firm Inekon, one of the top 100 corporations in the Czech Republic that is involved in railway projects in several European countries and the United States.

“I think he’s (Vitangcol) behind this corruption,” Rychter said. “In the discussion, they (emissaries) had to consult things to only this person who can decide...Mr. Vitangcol is the head of the MRT.

“You can see that Vitangcol has a very firm position. Nothing can move his chair, so I think that he is covered. He is protected,” the ambassador added.

Rychter said the extortion attempt took place on July 9, 2012.

He said Vitangcol, a businessman named Wilson de Vera, and a certain M. de la Cruz, had dinner with Inekon Group board chairman Husek and an Inekon executive named Haloun.

The ambassador said Vitangcol left after the dinner, while the rest of them headed to Rychtar’s residence to continue the discussion on the MRT project.

He said De Vera, whom Rychtar described as Vitangcol’s emissary, suggested $30 million in grease money, which Husek said was too much.

Rychtar said De Vera made two phone calls, after which he lowered the amount to $2.5 million.

“Finally, the Czech company did not participate in the bidding process due to its unclear terms of reference and suspicious circumstances around the bidding process itself,” Rychtar said.

The DoTC eventually awarded the P3.8-billion contract for 48 new MRT coaches to CNR Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock Co. of China.

Rychtar said Abaya did not act on the probe despite committing to do so during their two-hour meeting on April 11, 2013.

Rychtar said Abaya even scolded him over the phone after the Cruz couple was named in the media as being involved in the extort attempt.

Abaya earlier said that Rychtar’s allegations “came with a business agenda.” – With Jerrylyn B. Damaso

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