When there’s smoke, there’s fire

 The smoke detectors at the Iloilo Capitol didn’t sound an alarm, but the smoke that belched out of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan caused a great deal of panic in the Defensor administration two weeks ago.

The “fire” wasn’t the type that hit the old Iloilo Capitol twice toward the end of Defensor’s first stint as governor; it was an expose by no less than an ally, 3rd District Board Member Licurgo Tirador about an attempted bribery to get him to vote “yes” on the proposed operation of Small Town Lottery (STL) in the province.

Tirador broke the story to the local media shortly after Defensor announced he had issued a “certificate of no objection” for the operation of STL in favour of Around D’ World Gaming Corp. He cited the resolution of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan which endorsed the entry of STL into Iloilo province as the basis for his decision.

Of course, we had known long before that Defensor and Eddie Gonzalez, the alleged jueteng lord from Bicol and principal financier of Around D’ World, had reached a deal on bringing STL into the province.

Tirador was one of four board members who stood by their principles and voted “no” to STL. According to sources, Defensor sent an emissary to Tirador to change his vote. An envelope containing a bundle of cash was hand carried by the emissary to “soften” the resistance of Tirador.

The grand old man was insulted by the attempt to bribe him, but kept quiet about it for a while. It isn’t known what provoked him to make this revelation to local media. In talking about the attempted bribery, Tirador went so far as to estimate the amount given as bribes to top officials of the Iloilo Capitol — P25 million.

When the story broke, Defensor’s firefighters quickly dosed the conflagration. Tirador was persuaded to avoid giving any more interviews. For several days, he literally hid from media. One week later, he stood before his colleagues before the Sanggunian to deny he said those things. He was just misquoted, he said.

The issue refused to die, however. Last week, Rep. Niel “Junjun” Tupas Jr. (5th District) wrote a letter to PCSO chairperson Margie Juico asking for an investigation. Why is it that bribery has to be employed to get STL to operate in the province? That kind of transaction taints the integrity of the accreditation process, he pointed out. Under the Aquino administration, that way of doing business should be rejected.

Defensor contends that this obstacle to STL operations for Around D’ World Gaming Corp. is a retaliatory move on the part of the Tupases. But is it? Long before he issued the certificate of no objection, we have already been getting reports that it was a done deal.  As early as August, Gonzales visited Defensor at his Mandurriao residence in the company of Samuel Jonathan Ng, a local businessman. A huge amount of money had been exchanged, sources said.

The character of Around D’ World is suspect. It was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission only in April 2010. And it was granted a franchise by the old PCSO management a few days after the May 10 elections, when Defensor had been declared winner for the governorship.

It is a midnight franchise grant for all intents and purposes, but of course, Defensor doesn’t mind. Iggy Arroyo, a.k.a. Jose Pidal, had conveyed to the new governor a desire to expand jueteng in Iloilo province through Dr. Raul Banias, the provincial administrator. All that mattered to the governor was the color of the money.

Defensor’s defenders ridicule the Tupas complaint as “chasing ghosts”. What is there to investigate, the defenders say, when Tirador had “recoiled”  to borrow the words of The Daily Guardian’s “Resbak” column) from his original expose. Indeed, Tirador turned about face. But his excuse is much too shallow.

As the saying goes, “when there’s smoke, there’s fire.” It’s good it’s not the Capitol that is burning down, as a third conflagration will really be too much. But the true color of the Defensor administration is now becoming visible to everybody’s view.

Bribery at the Iloilo capitol

Licurgo Tirador, board member representing the 3rd district of Iloilo, seldom speaks publicly. But when he does, you can be sure it’s not gossip. A former OIC-governor of Iloilo, three-term congressman of the 3rd district and mayor of Pototan, Iloilo, Tirador can be described as an elder statesman in local politics. He can afford to speak his mind, and he doesn’t have to worry about stepping on toes.

Two weeks ago, Tirador created a minor tremblor at the Iloilo capitol when he exposed an attempt to bribe him and other members of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan just to secure passage of the resolution ffavoring the operation of Small Town Lottery (STL) in the province. Tirador, along with board members Gerardo Flores (1st district), Demy Sonza (2nd district) and Nielo Tupas (5th district), had voted against the resolution. The expose came after Iloilo governor Arthur Defensor Sr. revealed he had given a certificate of no objection in favor of Around the World Gaming Corp. owned by known jueteng lord Eddie Gonzales and Iggy Arroyo, a.k.a. Jose Pidal.

The revelation confirms the information I have gathered that the STL operator promised P100,000 to vice governor Oscar Richard Garin Jr. and P25,000 each to board members to get the resolution approved. And once the STL operations commence, a steady monthly allowance will also flow into the board members’ pockets, my sources say.

That the expose came from Tirador mildly surprised me. Tirador is an ally of Defensor. But to the credit of the grand old man, he isn’t one who sacrifices his principles. Once he finds something objectionable, then he’ll not hesitate to express his displeasure. This is apparently what happened in this instance. Tirador found it hard to swallow that STL was granted an entry permit because of bribes. And it is now clear the bribe money didn’t just involve the provincial board. The office of the governor is a logical place for more money to be delivered. In the final analysis, it’s the governor’s signature and assent that mattered the most.

Defensor knew he had a crisis in his hands. How can he now deflect the issue of corruption? He made his comeback to the capitol on the issue of corruption. He had accused his predecessor of rampant corruption, although after six months, he hasn’t proven a single charge. His “Mister Clean” image is now being threatened. And the threat didn’t come from the Tupas camp. The expose came from within his own group.

Well, Defensor employed the usual squid-tactics. At once he held a press conference and disclosed a report of the Commission on Audit (COA) disallowing a P5-million purchase of medicines last year. He was decent enough to admit the COA disallowance isn’t final and executory. The Tupas camp still has six months to appeal and show that there wasn’t anything irregular about it. But it suited his purposes, and the media bit at his bait.

It also helped him that Tirador zippered his mouth almost as quickly as he had opened it. Tirador turned elusive when local radio stations tried to do interviews with him. We can only speculate that Tirador was discreetly requested by his ally to shut his mouth up, because it will blow Defensor’s cover of a clean administration.

But the lid has been blown off. Tirador’s revelation is proof that STL is bringing dirty money into the hands of Capitol officials. I’ve been told Defensor was visited by Eddie Gonzales in August to seal the transaction. Gonzales was accompanied by Samuel Jonathan Ng, who was also involved in the Syjuco anomalies (cellphone, computers, etc.). Ng’s own wife delivered the money to the board members, my sources said.

I was told a partial delivery of P5 millon was made, which is why Defensor pushed hard to obtain a favorable resolution from the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. Another P15 million is supposedly due upon the issuance of the governor’s certificate of no objection. Easy money.

I’m hoping the media will not shelve the issue too soon. The integrity of the Iloilo capitol is now put into serious question. The source of the bribery issue isn’t a lightweight. He detonated a nuke right in Defensor’s office, and the governnor can no longer hide and escape culpability. The more troubling thought is that in this case, Defensor was a party to the bribery. The money given to the vice governor and board members came with his imprimatur.