SOME 20 groups will testify Wednesday before the Commission on Appointments to oppose the confirmation of Regina Lopez as Environment secretary, with some vowing to question the propriety of her flying first class to Paris and being billeted in a five-star hotel for a week-long all-expenses paid trip funded by a private contractor.
The plane fare and hotel accommodation alone for Lopez and her entourage amounted to 38,800 euros or P2.05 million, based on Lopez’s travel documents, copies of which were furnished the Manila Standard.
“We cannot have a member of the Cabinet kowtowing to private vested interests and gain favors because of her position and so we are questioning Secretary Lopez’s propriety, ethical standards and competence in heading a strategic and powerful government agency,” said Rodolfo Javellana, president of the United Filipino Consumers and Commuters.
“It goes without saying that Lopez has committed graft and corruption and violated Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act for accepting favors from a private contractor that has direct dealings with her agency. Her action runs counter to the policy and campaign of President [Rodrigo] Duterte against corruption,” Javellana said.
Javellana was referring to Lopez’s Oct. 2 to 7 trip to Paris that came after her intervention with the Department of Energy that resulted in the granting of a much-coveted renewable energy services contract to her French friend’s company Ecoglobal Foundation Inc., founded by Jean-Philippe Henry.
Javellana’s UFCC will be the first to air its grievances against Lopez during her confirmation hearing before the CA.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines is also expected to put up a strong opposition against Lopez’s confirmation.
Javellana said Lopez was found to be favoring not only her friends but most especially her family.
“While she declared a moratorium on granting Environmental Compliance Certificate to other companies, Lopez granted an ECC to the Lopez-owned geothermal plant project in Leyte last Jan. 18,” Javellana said. “This is a clear case of conflict of interest.”
Lopez’s travel documents show she flew to Paris using the government-issued diplomatic passport, a perk that is accorded high-ranking government officials.
She flew first class and was billeted at the Prince de Galles Hotel, a five-star hotel in the heart of Paris.
Henry’s Ecoglobal had to pay extra 2,500 euros because Lopez overstayed in the hotel. She was supposed to be billeted only for three days but her “late checkout” made the private contractor pay for four.
On Oct. 3 or the day after Lopez and several other DENR officials left for Paris, Henry, who diverted donated funds for Lopez’s junket, was able to secure an RESC.
Sabrina Simbulan, president and trustee of Ecoglobal Foundation Inc., said she and the EFI board of trustees never authorized 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.
“EFI would then sell the batteries to Ecoglobal Inc. (another Henry company) for P10. EI 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 the 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.
When Simbulan informed Lopez that Henry had diverted money donated by the SIAAP for a project in Urdaneta University without authority from the board, she ignored the reported anomaly and issued a statement that she had conducted an investigation and found that all the allegations against Henry were untrue.
“There was no such probe that was done by Secretary Lopez,” Simbulan told the Manila Standard in an interview.
“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 Javellana, in a separate interview.
When the EFI board ousted Henry on Jan. 11, Simbulan said Lopez protested and warned the stakeholders that the French national was a big loss to the industry because the French government and SIAAP would stop funding the Urdaneta University project.
Simbulan said DENR Assistant Secretary Juan Miguel Cuna, her executive assistant Celina-Therese Rotea and Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission officers Ramil Tan, Helen Arlene Qulilan, and Merliza Bonga hjoined Lopez on her Paris trip.
Chamber of Mines officials, meanwhile, vow to oppose Lopez’s confirmation because she “does not know her job.”
To date, the CMP officials said Lopez has yet to inform them of the specific violations committed by the 28 mining companies she ordered suspended or closed.
“We do not know why she is doing this to us. We believe she does not know her job,” the CMP officials said.
But President Rodrigo Duterte appealed to the CA to give Lopez a chance.
“You just cannot ignore also the cries of Gina Lopez….You should also allow Gina to present her case and I would like to ask Congress to–there in the Commission on Appointments, just look at it well,” the President said in a speech at Malacañang.
The President said he hopes for a “happy compromise” between the mining industry and advocates like Lopez.
“Now, I want my country to earn so I’m not saying I’m against mining per se, that I’m against big mining–far from that actually. I know that we need the dollars but somehow we have to look at the other way and a different perspective,” the President said.
He also said there was a need “to come up with a code or set of protocols… to go about controlling mining.”
Lopez on Tuesday asked the President to suspend a review of her closure and suspension orders by the Mining Industry Coordinating Council, after signing off on it earlier.
In a memo coursed through Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Lopez said the power to review the mining industry was delegated to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and not the council.
Members of the MICC agreed to a second review of the affected mines, issuing a joint resolution signed by Lopez and Dominguez, who co-chair the mining council.
Lopez initially agreed to a multi-stakeholder review by the MICC, but now questions its legality.
Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella declined to comment on Lopez’s about-face on the mining review.
The CA on Tuesday adopted new rules to include secret voting in an executive session.
Lopez, along with Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. were set to face the powerful CA’s committee on environment and natural resources at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday.
The notice of the hearing showed that there are 23 sworn oppositions to Lopez’s appointment while 12 others are sworn oppositions to the closure order of mining operations.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said a number of sworn oppositions to Lopez’s appointment have been submitted to the CA while Yasay’s confirmation has been derailed because of questions on his citizenship.
As this developed, he said the new rule of the CA will be effective Wednesday, in time for the scheduled confirmation hearings of Lopez and Yasay.
Sotto said the “secret balloting” would allow the CA members to vote based on their conscience.
“A CA member would be able to exercise his conscience vote; that option becomes available to him instead of just succumbing to lobbying or pressures. This way, he is free to make his own decision whether to confirm or reject a nominee,” Sotto said.
Sotto said what transpires in an executive session can still be disclosed to the public if two-thirds of its members decide to do so.
Aside from secret voting, Sotto said, the CA also adopted a three-bypass rule where the body would have to decide either to reject or approve a nominee whose confirmation has already been bypassed thrice.
“A deferment is not a bypass. A bypass happens when the nomination is not acted on in three congressional sessions,” he said.
“Once you’re rejected, you can never be reappointed by the President,” he said.
Asked if the decision to adopt the new rules had something to do with the fact that many of the Cabinet officials now are controversial, Sotto answered “yes and no.”
“Yes, because there are indeed controversial appointees, but it’s already been experienced by the CA, especially in the last administration—[though] I’m not confining it to the last administration, that those who are bypassed would just renew their applications,” he said.
Sotto noted that during the last administration, at least two or three Cabinet members were bypassed and reappointed 20 times.
He said at least 13 votes are needed to either confirm or reject an appointee.
Mine workers opposed to Lopez’s confirmation were expected to keep up the pressure with simultaneous protests in the Caraga Region and in front of the Senate in Manila.
Jacob Arroyo, a mine worker in Dinagat and one of those who submitted a sworn opposition, said he and his colleagues around Caraga region will join some 3,000 mine workers from Luzon in the Senate protest.
“We’re not as organized and well-funded as Ms. Lopez’s supporters, but we’re here because for us this is a gut issue,” Arroyo said in an interview by phone.
“Dinagat has been a declared mineral zone since 1939, and mining jobs are the only livelihood for us for many generations,” Arroyo added.
Seven of the 14 large-scale mining companies that Lopez shut down in Caraga Region are in Dinagat.
The Caraga region alone stands to lose 20,589 mining jobs if Lopez’s mine closure orders become final, said Evelyn R. Ramos, regional director of the Department of Labor and Employment in Caraga. With Lance Baconguis