Senate dared on Drilon

‘Have the balls to probe allegations against ally’

SENATOR Jinggoy Estrada on Thursday challenged Senator Teofisto Guingona III, chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee, to “have the balls” to investigate allegations that Senate President Franklin Drilon benefited from the overpriced construction of the Iloilo Convention Center.

United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) secretary general JV Bautista issued the same call after plunder and graft charges were filed against Drilon before the Office of the Ombudsman by the former Iloilo provincial administrator.

“If they are really serious in their campaign, they should not only focus on the opposition. They should also investigate their allies to prove that they are not one-sided,” Bautista told the Manila Standard.

But Bautista said he doubts if Drilon will ever be investigated by his colleagues in the Senate.

In a statement, Estrada said Guingona’s committee can investigate an issue on its own accord.

Under the Rules of the Senate, he said the panel can conduct an “investigation of any matter of public interest on its own initiative or brought to its attention by any member of the Senate.”

“Take note that the circumstances surrounding the allegation against the Senate President and Vice President Jejomar Binay (who is currently the subject of the continuing Blue Ribbon Subcommittee investigation) are quite similar – both are accused of being behind an overpriced building, and both high ranking officials are already facing plunder cases before the Ombudsman,” Estrada said.

“I remember that the Blue Ribbon Committee readily formed a subcommittee to begin the investigation against VP Binay, merely seven days after the resolution was filed on Aug. 11. Two days later the subcommittee began its first hearing,” said Estrada who remains detained at the PNP Custodial Center in Camp Crame, Quezon City on plunder charges in connection with the pork barrel scam.

Estrada, who is standing trial before the Sandiganbayan, said that when news circulated that Binay might attend the hearings if the mother committee would invite him, the chairman said the very next day that he was ready to convene the panel.

“Never mind that this is in stark contrast to the neglect and complete abandon of the chairman on the issue of the Malampaya Fund scam, which is already pending for more than a year,” said Estrada.

“If the chairman and the committee are still committed to its mandate of ensuring accountability of public officers and it is not just a subservient tool for partisan politicking and mudslinging, they will rise to the challenge and perform its duty,” he said.

He emphasized that if the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is non partisan and independent and does not look at political colors, it will launch an inquiry into the matter without delay.

“If he has the balls to carry out his task as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee, Senator Guingona will take up the challenge,” he said.

Drilon branded ”totally baseless and utterly ridiculous” the allegations by his former consultant, Manuel Mejorada, that the Iloilo Convention Center was overpriced, saying these were mere fabrications.

“He has no direct information and knowledge on the projects. All he has are flawed data and wrong assumptions,” Drilon said.

He said the ICC thoroughly followed all standard requirements in bidding, and the project was bid out under the supervision of Public Works Secretary Reogelio Singson.

He also said Mejorada has been harboring hatred against him after he fired him as a media consultant and refused to endorse him for several government posts.

In the House, Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon urged Drilon to explain to the Ombudsman why the convention center cost P700 million.

“For so long, the Senate President has been acting like he’s above the law. Yet this time, he cannot play god. He should categorically answer the plunder raps filed against him with regard to the construction of the ICC,” Ridon said.

“The Aquino administration must not also interfere and pressure the Ombudsman to bury the case in labyrinthine bureaucratic processes,” he added.

“We challenge the Ombudsman to act on this case speedily, even if Drilon and the two other Cabinet officials charged with plunder are close to the President,” the lawmaker said.

Asked if the charges filed by Mejorada will hold water, Ridon said yes.

“Given that Mejorada was able to work with the Iloilo provincial government and has ties with Senator Drilon, I believe he is capable or providing pertinent information on this controversy,” Ridon said.

On Wednesday, Mejorada filed plunder charges against Drilon, Singson, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority Administrator Mark Lapid, Public Works and Highways Undersecretaries Jaime Pacanan and Romeo Momo, DPWH Regional Director Edilberto Tayao, Marilyn Cruz of DPWH Region VI, William Coscolluela of W.V. Coscolluela and Associates, and Hilmarcs Construction Corp. Company President Efren Canlas.

The charges include plunder, malversation of public funds, dishonesty and grave misconduct, and violation of the Anti-Graft and Practices Act.

Ridon was the first to raise the possibility of overpricing in the ICC, Drilon’s pet project, when he filed House Resolution 1466 last month.

The ICC has been partly funded by Drilon’s Priority Development Assistance Fund and P100 million from the Disbursement Acceleration Program.

Ridon’s resolution also seeks to investigate possible cases of corruption and overpricing involving other government infrastructure projects contracted with Hilmarcs.

Ridon also raised questions on the bidding for the second phase of the multi-million-peso project.

Ridon said the DPWH Region VI might have rigged the public bidding in favor of Hilmarcs Construction Corporation (HCC), which is currently undertaking Phase 1 of the project.

DPWH Regional Director Edilberto Tayao earlier disclosed that the public bidding for the P200 million contract for the ICC Phase 2 last Oct. 20 had failed, following the last-minute pull out of HCC and the disqualification of winning bidder WERR Corp. International.

Tayao said HCC pulled out as it cannot accomplish the project at the given contract cost.

“The failure of bidding for phase two of the ICC is very suspicious. It is very similar to what transpired in bidding for Phase 1 of the project, in which HCC did not participate, but was able to clinch the project through negotiated procurement after the public biddings failed,” Ridon said.

The legislator said that DPWH may again be “maneuvering” to let HCC bag the project.

“By now, their modus operandi is already apparent. It will not be surprising if in the end, HCC will still clinch the contract for ICC Phase 2 – at the price HCC wants,” Ridon said.

Ridon announced that he would file formal blacklisting proceedings against HCC in the DPWH this November.

“The public cannot be at ease knowing that a construction company involved in several anomalous public infrastructure projects continue to clinch public projects. Blacklisting Hilmarcs will at least ensure the public that this particular company will no longer engage in projects paid by their taxes,” Ridon said.

Aside from the ICC, HCC is also the contractor behind the controversial Makati Parking Building and several other big-ticket government infrastructure projects.

Ridon also said that he intends to summon Tayao in the upcoming hearing for his resolution.

“The House leadership has assured me that the investigation sought by HR 1466 will push through. And we want Tayao, among other officials, to be present in that hearing, as it is apparent that he knows a lot about the ICC construction and possibly the anomalies surrounding it,” Ridon said.

The lawmaker said he received information that Tayao “acts like a modern-day shogun” in Western Visayas, as the regional director is in charge of all public infrastructure projects in that region.

“Even Mr. Mejorada himself revealed that Director Tayao once charged him close to P100,000 for copies of documents on public projects in Region VI – documents that should in the first place be publicly available. It appears that Tayao is the main wingman in the controversial overpricing operations in that part of the country. It is thus essential that he be summoned to Congress,” Ridon said.

Ridon likewise reminded Singson that his department has yet to submit to Congress documents related to HCC’s transactions with the government.

“During the plenary hearing for the 2015 national budget, we required DPWH to submit said documents, and all other pertinent information on HCC’s engagements with the government. But until now, we have yet to receive even a single file,” Ridon said.

“Is Secretary Singson hiding something from Congress? Why is he not submitting the documents required by no less than the House plenary? May we remind the secretary that it is his obligation to see to it that such documents will indeed be provided to Congress,” he added.

The Palace said Thursday there was no need for Singson or Jimenez to go on leave after he was charged with plunder and graft.

“We don’t see any reason to do that. Secretary Babes Singson is very confident that the bidding process undertaken for the Iloilo Convention Center was aboveboard. And I don’t know for what reason did that fellow (Mejorada) who filed the case against Senator Franklin Drilon included Secretary Mon Jimenez, knowing that the bidding process was transparent,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

“I think this was a personal feud by that person and Senator Frank Drilon. But you know, maybe to carry more media mileage, he decided to sue Secretary Singson and Secretary Jimenez. But Secretary Singson has already said he can easily defend the bidding process,” Lacierda said.

Mejorada, a former Iloilo provincial administrator, claimed the convention center was overpriced by P488 million.

In a statement, Jimenez expressed confidence that the project is aboveboard.

“I firmly believe that our actions in support of this project will withstand scrutiny. Notwithstanding this unfortunate allegation of overpricing, we will not allow this distraction to derail our mission to make tourism a force for growth and inclusiveness in this country,” Jimenez said. —With Joyce Pangco Panares

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