Sweetheart deal

Anytime soon — if it hasn’t happened yet — the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) will award the management contract for the soon-to-be-finished Iloilo Convention Center at the Iloilo Business Park of Megaworld Corp. in Mandurriao, Iloilo City.

The management of the ICC, which is expected to be finished at a “reduced” budget of P679 million by late June this year, is one of the conditions set by Megaworld when it donated the 1.7-hectare lot to the Department of Tourism as site of the facility.

And guess who will be the ultimate contractor to manage the ICC?

No other than Megaworld Corporation.

It will be a classic case of Megaworld having its cake and getting to eat it, too. It donated land which it bought at P2,500 per sqm. between two of its five-star hotels, Richmonde Hotel and Marriot Inn. Its act of “generosity” will reap enormous returns because it will now have a convention center at no cost to the company.

This was made possible, of course, by its benefactor, Senate President Franklin Drilon, who packaged the transaction that would cost the national government a whooping P679 million! It is a scam that is not likely to be investigated in earnest until a new administration comes along. As it is, Drilon enjoys the full protection of the “matuwid na daan” President, Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III.

But no matter how Drilon tries to deodorize the transaction, it is so rotten that its stink could be smelled as far away as Boracay, where I am writing this piece. Quite a number of people I met here groaned in dismay when the conversation turned to the ICC. That’s because the construction boom in Boracay hasn’t abated, and businessmen here know what it costs to build huge hotels and resorts. One businessman told me, “With that amount, I could have built a convention center with a five-star hotel.”

Hence, Megaworld will get the better end of the bargain when the ICC is completed, one that will be the envy of other big developers like SM and Ayala. It gave DOT a design for the ICC and it is getting it at no cost. All it needs to do is making a semblance of giving government a share of the income. With the ICC, it can market its two five-star hotels as venue for large national and international conventions. It is being handed over by the DOT on a silver platter.

The graft cases I filed against Drilon et al are now in the final evaluation stage in the Ombudsman. Am I confident that the Ombudsman will hold the principal characters culpable for the litany of violations of the government procurement law and anti-graft and corrupt practices act? Ultimately, the Ombudsman will be compelled to charge them. But maybe not soon enough. The Ombudsman is pre-occupied with running after the Binays.

The facts, and the law, are on my side. That’s the reason I can confidently say the Ombudsman will ultimately indict the respondents. The violations of law and policy are so glaring, and the defenses put up by the respondents have been weak. Most of them attacked me for supposedly saying I had no evidence when I appeared before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee four months ago. Unfortunately for them, it’s not what I said that matters to the Ombudsman. It’s the evidence on the record.

In this case, I was able to turn the table around and used their own documentary evidence against them. This is the beauty of the law. Innocent-looking documents submitted by your opponents can prove more lethal to them. I take great pride in waging this battle because I was pitted against the best lawyers in the country. For a non-lawyer, it flatters me to be able to cause seasoned lawyers consternation and great labor.

There’s nothing I can do to stop the transaction. Drilon, in his speech during the Dinagyang, arrogantly boasted that no Ilonggo can derail his pet project. Of course, it wasn’t the project that I intended to stop. It was the wanton plunder that took place in the guise of implementing the project.

I am now just awaiting the Regional Trial Court of Pasay City to set my arraignment on the four counts of libel that Drilon filed against me. Facing Drilon’s libel charges against me is the greatest challenge ever to confront me. But I am not afraid. I know I am in the right. In the end, truth will triumph, and justice will be mine.


The barkers of Jed Patrick Mabilog boasted to the local media that Wilfredo Solomon, close-in bodyguard of the city mayor, has been pulled out of his duties as chief protector and reassigned as office clerk in his extravagantly furnished 7th floor office in the New Iloilo City Hall building.

These barkers made it sound as if Solomon, who shot and wounded an unarmed neighbor twice, was being exiled to Siberia. Solomon figured in another fracas last Sunday night when he pulled out his pistol in a drunken altercation but was overpowered by his own drinking buddies. He was beaten black and blue. it was an ugly episode for a city mayor who ignores criminality in Iloilo City as if it doesn’t exist.

Solomon has never been charged for his crimes. The police are reluctant to do so for obvious reasons. Mabilog said it’s up to the police. We don’t need to be geniuses to figure out that it’s a signal to them not to mess with his bodyguard. Now he is being given a comfortable job after being mauled by buddies who could have been shot themselves.

This soft reproach is symbolic of how Mabilog treats abuses in his administration. It is a perfect illustration of a culture of impunity where law breakers get the protection of persons in authority. Instead of turning Solomon in, Mabilog shielded him and ordered him to enjoy the airconditioned comfort of an overpriced A/C system in his office. Not even a reprimand.

Because of this, it is not surprising why criminality has surged in Iloilo City during the last 26 months. It’s either Mabilog is protecting criminals or is simply too callous to bother about protecting the safety of his constituents. Until now, we haven’t heard the city mayor acknowledge that we have a problem. His statements have always branded these reports as exaggerations, or figments of the imagination.

What makes us worry is that people are getting killed. Homes and businesses are being robbed, many in broad daylight. Laws are being violated, with no steps being taken to address them. In this city, impunity is the name of the game.

Battle zone for media

Fernando “Kapid” Gabio had been getting death threats for more than six months now. He used to brush them aside, thinking these were empty threats. But when his radio program partner, Lito Jimena, was shot down in cold blood in E. B. Magalona a little over six months ago, he started taking precautions. He took to packing a cal. 45 pistol in addition to the micro-cassette recorder, notebook and ballpen. He also made it a point to bring one or two friends with him as bodyguards.

On a sunny Friday morning just outside his home in Jaro, Iloilo City, Gabio was thankful about taking those precautions. He was looking over his car parked beside a busy road when he sensed danger approaching; two helmeted men riding a motorcycle came towards him just as he turned to look. Gabio saw the back-rider draw a gun. Instantly, Gabio reached for his own pistol while literally diving for cover behind his car. Those milliseconds saved his life.

When the gunmen opened fire — three successive shots from a cal. 45 pistol — much of Gabio’s body was already behind cover. Only his right leg was exposed. One bullet hit him a few inches above the knee. Two other rounds hit the concrete wall behind him. “I wanted to fire back, but a wave of numbness, and then pain swept over me,” he said. He collapsed. Luckily for him, the gunmen rode away, not wanting to risk engaging him in a gunfight.

At the hospital emergency room, Gabio didn’t show manifestations of pain or fear. He even mocked his attackers: “Stupid guys, you can’t even shoot straight.” There was no doubt in his mind the attack was related to his stinging commentaries about the anomalies in City Hall. The nature of his radio talk hasn’t changed since Jimena was murdered. By this alone, it becomes crystal clear Jimena’s killing wasn’t about drugs as some quarters want to portray. The attempt on Gabio was directly connected to Jimena’s murder.

Who would have wanted Gabio dead? Just put together the obvious clues and the answer will leap at you. And this string of violence is consistent with the aggressive social media machinery put together by Jepoy Celiz, the political affairs officer of Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog, to malign, demean, besmirch and disparage journalists who expose the corruption in City Hall. In a manner of speaking, the effort is being waged to “kill” these journalists, myself included, before the public. As Senator Gringo Honasan put it, there are people who would rather be dead than have their honor sullied.

But the media crusaders understand the purpose of this black propaganda strategy. Mabilog can’t refute the issues raised against him, so he resorts to below-the-belt tactics to try and discourage media from pursuing stories critical to him. On another tier, there is a more physical approach to achieving the same results: shut up the mouths of the media. Such tactics, however, are not going to work. We will not stop. We will brush aside the brickbats and remain focused on the issues.

The situation illustrates the real dangers that confront the media profession here. Iloilo City is now a battle zone where perhaps helmets and bullet proof vests should become standard equipment for journalists. The tragedy is that the Philippine National Police isn’t doing its duty to protect the lives of the people against the bad men. There are indications the PNP is even protecting the bad guys. It becomes even more frightening.

Gabio is a lucky man. He regarded Iloilo City as a battle zone and constantly prepared for any eventualities. We just hope the entire media establishment will take note of this dangerous situation and send the Marines in here. Indeed, corruption is a deadly enemy. The mission, however, is far from over. We will continue to perform our mission to expose the truth.

Dead and cold

It’s been more than five months now since block-time broadcaster Neil “Lito” Jimena was shot in cold blood in the town of E. B. Magalona, Negros Occidental by apparent guns-for-hire “riding in tandem”. Two suspects have been charged before the Negros Occidental Provincial Prosecutor’s Office about a month later after eyewitnesses positively identified them as the culprits. Nothing has been heard about the case since then. If it were a radio set, only the hissing sound of static — empty radio signal — could be heard from it.

The silence is suspicious. The police had positive identification. There was even a CCTV video that showed the victim during his last few moments, with the alleged gunmen visible in the background. Right from the start, we received A-1 information from intelligence sources that the assailants were hired by a powerful figure in Iloilo City. The victim appears to have been lured to go home to E. B. Magalona that weekend. It was a set-up. There was a deluge of death threats in his cell phone. The victim had also revealed to friends and colleagues that his life was in danger.

First, why did the Philippine National Police (PNP) stop dead in its tracks? The investigation was not yet over. Only the alleged assailants were identified. Certainly, the investigation shouldn’t have ended there. We expected the PNP to send investigators to talk with Jimena’s colleagues in Iloilo City. These individuals could have provided clues on the mastermind behind the killing. I, for one, received text messages from Jimena that can shine a bright beam of light on the case.

And what about the CCTV footage? That was supposedly sent by the Task Force Jimena to Camp Crame for forensics examination and get the images enhanced. After five months, there should be helpful results by now. But we have not heard anything. It’s as if the case was just closed with hardly a whimper. The PNP no longer demonstrated interest in pursuing the case. In effect, even the alleged triggerman and his accomplice-driver would not have to face trial. Justice will never be done for Lito Jimena

This development is disturbing. It reinforces the perception that the culture of impunity in which media workers are murdered without their culprits being punished persists, and shows no sign of abating. An investigative report published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) shows there have been 120 media murders since freedom of the press was restored in the country in 1986. That is a high price to pay for the right to report the truth freely.

Only about 8 percent of the cases have resulted in conviction. More than half never even reached the courts, according to PCIJ. Apparently, the forces of government are no match to the power of the individuals who ordered these killings. This is a weakness in our law enforcement system that leaves the media profession highly vulnerable. And it’s not farfetched to think that most young journalists would rather stay away from danger than pursue stories fearlessly. Indeed, with the pittance that most Filipino journalists get for their work, it’s hard to courageous in the journalism sense of the word.

How many more journalists will have to pay with their lives to earn the right to report the truth freely? The case of Dr. Gerry Ortega of Puerto Princesa is now gaining prominence once more as the media profession have closed ranks to protest the failure of law enforcers to pin down the culprits. Fear for one’s life is worse than libel in discouraging journalists from angering powerful public officials. The lack of interest on the part of the Aquino government to end this culture of impunity makes it part of the problem.

There are ugly rumors that a powerful politician has pressured the PNP to step on the brakes in pursuing the case. It’s not hard to believe these rumors, because there is no logical explanation for the sudden “cold and dead” status of the case. An investigation doesn’t just lose steam when it is hot on a lead. There has to be an external stimulus to make that happen. It would be unfortunate if this is true. The PNP ceases to be the protector of our freedoms. It is once again becoming a tool for dirty politicians

Culture of Impunity (Part II)

Much of what is going wrong in this country can be attributed to our failure to punish those who have committed grave crimes against its people. There is no justice when powerful officials can just steal money right under our noses and whistle their way to the bank. And we can’t expect ordinary crimes to be solved when the big, pestering corruption cases remain unresolved.

These are the basic principles that need to be underscored as we tackle the issue of corruption in Iloilo City, particularly those involving its highest elected officials like Rep. Jerry P. Trenas and Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog. We will never get anywhere for as long as these corruption cases taunt our justice system. It will never restore public confidence in our government.

Worse, these public officials are getting bolder and bolder and bolder each time.

This is what we have witnessed with the secret transaction that Mabilog made with F. F. Cruz and Co./Freyssinet Filipinas Inc. Joint Venture for the supplementary works contract worth P260 million to complete the new Iloilo City Hall building. Until now, City Hall hasn’t disclosed much after reporters covering the City Hall asked questions about the work resumption at the scandal-ridden project.

Is this the transparency in governance that Mabilog boasted about? Was the contract a result of “open, competitive public bidding” that Mabilog announced last June? Is the city government trying to scale down its proposed expenditures on the overpriced project so that more funds can be channeled to other vital services and programs in the city?

Of course, the answer can only be “no”.

Mabilog is shrugging off these questions. For him, he can do as he pleases, even contrary to what the Commission on Audit has advised him, about the project. For him, he is the City Mayor, and he can ignore the mandate of Republic Act No. 9184, or the Government Procurement Reform Act, which clearly set down the rule that all government procurements, with a few exceptions, must be done through public bidding.

It’s not hard to understand why Mabilog feels this way. He feels secure and protected by the culture of impunity that has taken root in our community. He has seen that his predecessor, Trenas, hasn’t been indicted before the Sandiganbayan after all these years. He will only need to apply thick make-up to turn his face into pachyderm. No shame. No guilt. No remorse.

This attitude reflects the contradictions in what Mabilog preaches, and what he does. He put up the HALIGI Foundation at the start of his political career purportedly to espouse an “honest and accountable living for a graft-free Iloilo”. Is this just a camouflage for his true intentions? Or was he just swallowed by the monstrous jaws of corruption? Nothing about his actions during the first 16 months in office suggest he wants to get rid of corruption. On the contrary, he looks to me like a young man in a hurry to steal millions and millions from the public coffers.

I am hoping the COA will stand its ground on the issue of the lack of public bidding. The first contract for the City Hall project is already fraught with irregularities. Right now, the vigilant media seems unable to stop these corrupt-filled activities. Trenas has hunkered down in the trenches, keeping himself hidden from the issues, with not a word to explain his past actions. Mabilog is sticking as close as possible to the model set by Trenas, looking almost like a clone.

Much is expected of COA to redeem its image. In the past, COA was a toothless tiger, utterly helpless in the fight against corruption, because those involved were too powerful to be hailed to the Ombudsman. Now is the time to prove that it has shed its old image and be a strong watchdog against corruption.

When our officials are not afraid of the repercussions of their actions, then our community has a serious problem on our hands. We hope this culture of impunity is banished from Iloilo, for we can never truly become progressive with such festering issues swirling in our community.

Meanwhile, our readers can count on us to remain vigilant against corruption.