Gina under fire for travel paid for by contractor

ENVIRONMENT Secretary Regina Lopez is under fire again, this time for accepting an all-expenses paid travel to Paris sponsored by a private contractor, and for personally benefiting from foreign donations amounting to 260,000 euros or about P13.7 million intended for an environmental project at a public university.

Consumer groups on Monday said part of those funds were diverted to bankroll her Oct. 2, 2016 trip to Paris as Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary.

“Favoring a foreign entity at the expense of Filipinos and accepting favors from a private contractor are acts of graft and corruption and are prohibited by law. Gina Lopez may love to travel for free but the freebies are what actually make government officials beholden to the private contractors, which definitely happened in this case,” said Rodolfo Javellana Jr., president of the United Filipino Consumers and Commuters.

Without any probe, Lopez also immediately exonerated her friend and benefactor French national Jean Philippe Henry, who is now facing qualified theft charges for making the huge withdrawals that benefited Lopez and deprived the students of Urdaneta City University in Pangasinan of the donated funds that were secured for them in the first place but never reached them, said Sabrina Simbulan, president and trustee of Ecoglobal Foundation Inc. 

On Oct. 3 or the day after Lopez and several other DENR officials left for Paris, Henry, who diverted the donated funds for Lopez’s travel, was able to secure a renewable energy service contract, official documents furnished the Manila Standard showed.

Simbulan said she and the EFI board of trustees did not authorize Henry’s withdrawal of funds for Lopez’s trip.

Henry was then chairman of EFI, a company engaged in soliciting donations of used vehicle batteries.

Environment Secretary Regina Lopez
“EFI would then sell the batteries to Ecoglobal Inc. [another Henry company] for P10. EFI would extract the lead from the batteries at its smelting plant in Bulacan,” Simbulan said.

On Nov. 15, 2015, EFI amended its primary purpose to accommodate waste water treatment using bamboo, Simbulan said. 

She said the EFI, a Philippine foundation engaged in improving the working and living conditions of Filipinos while protecting the environment, is in partnership with Syndicat Interdepartmental pour L’assainissement de L’agglomeration Parisienne, a French publicly owned company involved in treating waste water of Paris.

The SIAAP, through EFI, had given initial funding for a bamboo waste water treatment project in Urdaneta City University in Pangasinan.

The SIAAP committed to fund the program amounting to 260,000 euros annually in the next four years or a total of 1.04 million euros or P55.12 million.

Simbulan said since Henry was signatory to the bank transactions of the EFI, they were not aware that the SIAAP already sent the donated funding for the university and Henry started making huge withdrawals even without the approval of the board. 

Qualified theft charges have been filed against Henry before the Makati court.

When the board ousted Henry on Jan. 11, Simbulan said Lopez protested that the French government and SIAAP would stop funding the Urdaneta University project.

In that meeting, the board replaced Henry with former Health Secretary Jaime Galvez Tan as chairman.

“Upon my investigation, I also discovered that Ms. Lopez, along with DENR Assistant Secretary Juan Miguel Cuna, her executive assistant Celina-Therese Rotea and Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission officers namely Ramil Tan, Helen Arlene Qulilan, Merliza Bonga had partaken on a trip to Paris last October 2, 2016, which was arranged and funded by EFI. This trip was to meet SIAAP for the Pasig River and several waste-to-energy projects in the Philippines,” Simbulan wrote to stakeholders. 

“Likewise, the French Embassy received a letter certifying that those Philippine government officials are invited to France to attend a series of meetings with French government representatives and French public companies. The said tour was on no account approved by EFI Board of Trustees. As the President, I did not approve to shoulder any of disbursements thereof,” Simbulan said.

Simbulan said Lopez did not only castigate her for what befell Henry but also went out of her way to rally all stakeholders behind Henry.

At 12:25 a.m. of Feb. 3, 2017, Simbulan said she received an email from Lopez asking her about her letter to stakeholders.

“She stated that Henry is helping her with renewable energy and the Pasig River. Since Henry is no longer part of EFI, then the French government is not keen to help. She also asserted that she is not pleased at all and wanted me to call her,” Simbulan recounted.

She said Lopez sent out an undated letter to stakeholders assuring them that she had undertaken an investigation and concluded that all allegations against Henry were untrue. 

Lopez asserted she had evidence to prove Henry was innocent of the charges. To date, Simbulan said, Lopez has yet to show proof of Henry’s innocence.

Simbulan said Lopez insisted it would be sad if the Pasig River and the renewable energy projects did not push through because of “misguided intentions against Mr. Henry.”

“Based on several activities that Ms. Lopez colluded in has made me question her credibility of leading the DENR. First, the trip to Paris was illegal. She was not invited as a private person but a part of the Philippine delegation,” Simbulan said.

“Secondly, on her email last Feb. 3, 2017, apart from emailing me in ungodly time, she made presumptuous expectation that part of my obligation was to please her and in fact demanded [that I call her]. After reading her arrogant email, I felt that I was bullied and should be held accountable for her supreme being feelings,” Simbulan said.

Simbulan said Lopez “failed to live up to the role of secretary of DENR.”

“Far from the passionate and unprejudiced body envisioned in the Constitution, the Office of the Secretary of DENR has instead become synonymous with depravity, bribery and graft,” Simbulan said.

Simbulan and Javellana said they would face Lopez whenever needed during her confirmation hearing,  as they wanted the public to know their strong opposition against her.

Faced with mounting opposition to her confirmation, Lopez has requested the Commission on Appointments to reset her hearing.

Lopez said she has told Senator Manny Pacquiao that she will be out of the country this month, and that she is requesting the CA to reschedule the hearing from March 8 to May 3.

“[It’s] May 3, because I’m leaving the country in March. So if I have it [hearing] on Wednesday and there are 19 oppositors, then it [hearing] might not finish so I asked [Senator] Pacquiao if I can make make it in May,” she said.

She said she will be out of the country to go on a retreat, but did not say where she was going.

Lopez is faced with 19 oppositors, one of which is the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines.

Lopez has set the record for having the most number of oppositors at the CA at 19, CoMP vice president for legal and policy Ronald Recidoro said, adding three other groups would file an opposition.

Earlier, Pacquiao, the CA’s environment and natural resources committee chairman, said Lopez was giving him a “headache.”

He was referring to the oppositions filed with the CA to block Lopez’s confirmation.

He said he had no option but to hear each and every opposition. With Rio N. Araja and Maricel V. Cruz

Topics: Secretary Regina Lopez , Trip to Paris , Department of Environment and Natural Resources , Rodolfo Javellana Jr. , United Filipino Consumers and Commuters , Jean Philippe Henry , Urdaneta City University students , Sabrina Simbulan , Ecoglobal Foundation Inc. , D
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