"Expect more revelations in the days and months leading to the elections."
In last Wednesday's column, we traced the amazing journey of embattled former DBM Undersecretary and PS-DBM Executive Director Lloyd Christopher Lao from a volunteer lawyer in the 2016 presidential run of then-Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte to one of the more powerful and, of late, recognizable faces populating the higher ramps of the administration. We noted that Lao belonged to that select network of loyalists and more. Not only is he from Davao City and, as PRRD himself said two days ago, he had been helping with some of the city's legal concerns during his stint as mayor together with another Davao-based lawyer, Sammy Dagpin. Dagpin is now the Chairman of the Governance Commission on GOCCs, a Cabinet-level position.
As fate would have it, as PRRD stepped into the Palace in June 2016, a group of Davao-based volunteers, mostly lawyers, decided to join him. They manned most of the senior positions in the newly created Office of the Special Assistant to the President (OSAP), one of three Cabinet-level offices tasked with running the affairs of the Office of the President.
From here, he had a bird's eye view of the workings of government, giving him a front seat advantage rarely afforded even the most dedicated public servant in Malacañang. He served as vice-chairman of the presidential search committee, vetting all possible presidential appointees across the entire bureaucracy, and of course a handle on any agency program or project which meets his or his bosses' fancy.
It did not take long before Lao eventually managed to volunteer as Commissioner and CEO of the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board at a time when the economy was on the rise and property development was booming. He was right at the center of things.
It was at the HLURB where Lao made his mark — or so my sources noted. Here he held sway over a multi-billion (some say trillions) of property development riding on the crest of an economic surge. With two fraternity brothers, Julius Enciso who served as his eyes and ears at the agency and a certain Enrico Agcaoili, who was active in HLURB affairs as a law practitioner, the group managed to steer such development to their liking.
This is why people privy to the workings of property developers told me Lao was somehow involved in the opposition's shutout in the senatorial polls. Lao and company gained such a reputation at the HLURB that just after the 2019 elections, he was himself charged with extortion by a disgruntled developer, a case which remains up to this writing.
But no matter. Even as that case persisted, given Lao's track record of service in both the OSAP/PMS and HLURB, it did not take long for him to move on and volunteered to take on more challenging undertakings. By August 2019, as the workings of the budget department was being scrutinized due to some alleged mishaps, he was suddenly plucked out of the HLURB to become DBM Undersecretary and concurrently PS-DBM Executive Director. At first, then newly appointed Budget Secretary Wendell Avisado voiced concern over such twin appointments. Eventually, Secretary Avisado was prevailed upon to accept and live with that arrangement.
Given Lao's expertise, he was soon able to get a firm handle of PS-DBM's affairs as the agency was being primed to handle multi billion peso procurements from various government entities. He had experienced staff to back him up. There was a certain Christine Marie Suntay, Administration and Finance Directo; lawyer Warren Leung (Lao's fraternity brod) as Operations Director and Jason Uayan, also a lawyer heading the procurement division. It was a perfect set up for a seamless procurement operations touted to fast track and benefit agencies which were having problems with their own requirements.
That Lao became emboldened with his successful runs, after managing the original pandemic response measures including the disbursement of that controversial P42 billion fund transfer from the DoH (Note: I am told this is part of a P67 billion fund), he had his sights unto other powerful offices. This time he was hoping to volunteer as Overall Deputy Ombudsman in place of the discredited office holder. That effort proved to be short-lived as he decided to withdraw his name from consideration. In his stead, his deputy for operations at the PS-DBM, lawyer Leung, got appointed. His other deputies, Uyan replaced him as PS-DBM Executive Director while Suntay is now reportedly in the private sector, having since moved on to other highly placed entities after he opting out.
In any event, as the reputation of PS-DBM as the go-to procurement entity was established, in time billions of pesos worth of projected procurement were outsourced to the agency. So when the pandemic struck the country, the agency was more than ready to face the challenge of securing all the needed medical equipment and supplies to cope with the emergency. It was, as one observer noted, a set up made for the books.
Together with the Philippine International Trading Corporation (PITC), the corporate arm of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the PS-DBM served as the twin procuring entities on behalf of an increasing number of agencies presumably due to their seamless and low key operations. Imagine using these agencies even for highly technical items such as fire trucks and defense materials, and this time, all the needed materials to enhance our testing, tracing, and related requirements. In a word, the entire health care delivery system.
Given such an enormous task and the billions of pesos which went and continues to be allocated for it, is it any wonder that Lao and his cohorts are in the middle of this now-unfolding drama drawing all kinds of allegations, fake news, and innuendoes from all sorts of people and groups as election 2022 draws near?
Expect more to scatter in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Brace yourselves for a roller coaster ride up to May 2022.
In the meantime, we should not lose sight of the critical measures the country and our people need to survive this pandemic and get back on track to face up to the challenges of a “new normal." We must always remember that living with COVID-19 will be our continuing challenge for years to come. That will require all hands on deck, distractions be damned.