Drilon’s ‘Midas touch’

Not a few people raised their eyebrows last Sunday when Senate President Franklin Drilon boasted that by this time next year, the City of Iloilo will be inaugurating the P1 billion state of the art Convention Center at the Iloilo Business Park of MegaWorld.

It’s not because they doubted that the Convention Center will indeed by completed by then. The construction of the project has commenced on a 1.6-hectare lot at the heart of the old Iloilo airport in Mandurriao. The reaction was triggered by the amount mentioned by the Senate President as the project cost — P1 billion.

How did the project cost escalate to P1 billion?

When the project was announced back in February 2012, the estimated cost for the convention center was only P350 million. Then in the middle of 2013, the figure rose to P400 million. Towards the last quarter, it had become P470 millon. (The approved budget for the contract as advertised by DPWH was P478 million).

And now Drilon announced the total cost is P1 billion!

Nobody has bothered to tell the people the reasons for the creeping increases in cost estimates, and now this giant leap.

Perhaps it’s the product of Drilon’s “Midas touch”. It’s the same phenomenon that was observed in other infrastructure projects he initiated for Iloilo City. Of course, everybody knows the rise in prices isn’t the result of a legitimate increase in the cost of construction materials. The overprice goes to a bank account that is getting fatter and fatter and fatter every day.

It doesn’t end there. Just this morning, it was reported over RMN 774 (as disclosed by Atty. Pistong Melliza on Facebook) that the convention center, once completed and operational, will be turned over to a private entity for the management and supervision. Does this mean the government will not earn anything from its bloated P1 billon investment?

Putting safety on the line — the Iloilo Convention Center

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Can a famous architectural firm be engaged to do the design of a huge government infrastructure project without undergoing the procurement process prescribed by Republic Act No. 9184 and its Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations?

Apparently not.

That’s the reason the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) published an invitation for expressions of interest for the architectural and engineering designs of the Iloilo Convention Center last May 2013.

TIEZA had every right to initiate the procurement process. It was providing the funds for the project. It was the procuring entity.

However, Senate President Franklin M. Drilon had already engaged a well-known architectural firm to do the job. As early as November last year, Drilon had already announced that the firm of W. V. Coscolluela and Associates prepared the designs.

The TIEZA posted the invitation to submit expressions of interest on its website. However, somebody must have informed Drilon and called TIEZA he’s got somebody to do the job.

Today (Sept. 30), I called up the BAC of TIEZA and I was told the contract, which had an approved budget for the contract, was cancelled. The BAC secretariat didn’t know the reason for the cancellation.

And so now the DPWH is in the final stage of a negotiated procurement to work out a deal with one of the short-listed suppliers. It’s being made on the architectural and engineering designs of a company that didn’t undergo the bidding process.

To add to the mystery, the DPWH Region VI just only recently conducted a public bidding for geo-technical investigations and soil boring to determine the stability of the area where the Iloilo Convention Center will be put up.

When I revealed this over the weekend, I received information from architects and engineers that this is anomalous. It only goes to show that the structural design analysis for the plans and specifications was done without a geo-technical investigation being done first. The safety of the engineering design, especially that the superstructure will handle a heavy load of people, could not be guaranteed under the circumstances.

Will DPWH sacrifice safety just to meet the deadline for the APEC Ministers Summit in October 2015?

Drilon’s ‘golden’ watering system

It was, in the language of a government official who is an expert in the law on government procurement, “a bullet train ride” for the P13.5 million pork barrel project with a“manual irrigation system” for the Iloilo Esplanade as its centerpiece.

“Right from step one to step 10, almost every rule in Republic Act No. 9184 and its revised implementing rules and regulations were violated,” the procurement law resource person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

Whoever was behind it must have been in a hurry to award the contract to a favored contractor, he said. He added that the entire procurement process took 38 days, which he likened to “a bullet train ride” because of its swiftness.02sep_1 front

The expert outlined the violations of RA 9184, which governs all procurement for supplies and services in the public sector, based on what he found out in an examination of the documents released by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Regional Office No. 6:

  • The contract was advertised through an invitation to bid on Sept. 21, 2012 even before the funds reached DPWH Region VI.

The documents show that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) issued the Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) on Sept. 17, 2012. It was received by DPWH central office on Sept. 27, 2012, which endorsed it to DPWH Region VI on Sept. 28, 2012. Under the law, the funds must already be available when a project is advertised for public bidding, the expert said.

He said the prior issuance of the SARO is not required before the procurement can start when a project is listed in the agency’s annual procurement plan or APP. This project isn’t listed in the APP of DPWH, he said. When the invitation to bid was posted, the SARO was still in transit. Hence, no funds available yet at the time it was advertised, he said. “That’s putting the cart ahead of the horse,” he said.

While this is not a “fatal” flaw, he said “speaks loudly that somebody powerful is moving the project forward.”

  • The invitation to bid was not published in a newspaper of national circulation at least once because it involved a contract exceeding P5 million.

RA 9184 and its revised implementing rules and regulations imposes a requirement for publication in a newspaper of national circulation for infrastructure contracts above P5 million. The DPWH Region VI did not present any proof this was complied with. TNT Libre also verified with the digital archive of The Manila Standard Today, which was designated as official newspaper for DPWH invitations to bid, for the dates Sept. 21 to 28, and this invitation to bid did not appear on any of these dates.

  • The Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) illegally raised the approved budget for the contract (ABC) after the pre-bid conference was conducted.

The invitation to bid issued on Sept. 21, 2012 placed the ABC for the project at P10,110,640.14. But subsequently, the ABC was changed twice and raised to P13,092,238.67 through what is known as a “bid bulletin”. This is illegal, the expert said. The bid bulletin is only for purposes of clarifying the bid documents to help bidders submit a responsive offer for the contract. The ABC is determined by the agency before it is advertised for bidding. “The BAC has no power to increase or decrease the ABC,” he said.

To support his contention, he cited Resolution No. 07-2005 of the Government Procurement Policy Board (GPPB) which oversees all government procurement activities and manages the PhilGEPS website. The resolution authorizes an “upward” adjustment of the ABC only after two failed biddings in which all submitted bids exceeded the amount, or no bids were submitted, or that a negotiated procurement after two failed biddings also resulted in failure.

“This will put the entire BAC in serious trouble,” he said.

  • The Notice of Award and Notice to Proceed to the winning contractor was not posted in the PhilGEPS website, which is again a violation of the revised implementing rules and regulations of RA 9184.

A key feature of the transparency mechanism for government procurement under RA 9184 is the posting of “milestone” events for a contract in the PhilGEPS website. The documents that must be posted on this website are the invitation to bid, bid bulletins, notice of award, contract agreement and notice to proceed. A “Certificate of Compliance” on these postings signed by Tayao and the new BAC chairman, Marilyn H. Celiz, dated June 7, 2013 show that these notices and contract agreement were not posted on the PhilGEPS website.  On the remarks column, there appeared a note that these “Cannot be posted due to changes in ABC as posted in the bid bulletins”.

These violations are “tell-tale signs” of a rigged bidding, the expert said. “One can readily see that there was an effort to conceal the bidding,” he said.

‘Shock and awe” to disguise corruption

I woke up at 3 o’ clock a.m. I check the iPad screen, and the date glows Sept 1, 2013. Unable to go back to sleep. So many things bothering the mind. The last few days revealed disturbing facts about how corruption has devoured Iloilo. It unmasks a strategy of “shock and awe” to mesmerize an unsuspecting public with a plethora of infrastructure projects, completely aware that it is one giant delivery van for plunder. I wonder: is there hope for this nation? Will the people awaken to the truth?
What I have disclosed so far is only the tip of the iceberg. But already, I can hear remarks like, “can’t this Boy Mejorada appreciate the deluge of projects that have come our way?” In a big way, quite a number of Ilonggos will look at me as villain. The officials behind these projects are painted as heroes. Indeed, Iloilo City hasn’t experienced the kind of infrastructure development before. On the surface, we have a lot to be grateful about.
Still, there’s a gnawing question at the back of the mind: do we just cast a blind eye at the corruption and embrace the good about it? Is corruption an inevitable evil that forms part of the cost for development? Do we keep quiet over the knowledge that tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of pesos are being pocketed as kickbacks?
It is a lonely battle — this expedition in investigative journalism. Fear grips a lot of people and effectively shuts their mouths. Most prefer to suffer in silence. But even as I navigate this minefield, I know I am on the right path, and I will not retreat. I will not stop.

Down the drain

When the Iloilo Esplanade was inaugurated on Aug. 18, 2012, its patron, Senator Franklin Drilon, was asked this question: “Sir, why is it that with the beautiful park you have brought to Iloilo City, it lacks a basic necessity, which is a rest room?” The reporters who had flocked around Drilon were surprised to see his reaction. His faced darkened; he was displeased. “Why ask for something that is not there? Be contented with what we have!” The senator was irritated.

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Senate President Franklin Drilon waves to crowds along with Sarangani congressman Manny Pacquiao during the inauguration of the Iloilo Esplanade.

Indeed, that was a valid question. The government claims to have spent P70 million  on the 1.2 kilometer riverside park. With such extravagance showered upon the project, it’s hard to see how something so basic could have been overlooked. The project is supposed to draw hordes and hordes of tourists. Where are they supposed to relieve themselves when the call of nature comes? “Just go to a nearby restaurant!” was the retort of Drilon.

The bladed remarks of Drilon comes back to mind after it was revealed that a month after the Iloilo Esplanade was inaugurated, he drew from his pork barrel fund, the so-called Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), and allocated P13.5 million for “completion works”. That fund release was kept under wraps. There was no media announcement as Drilon is wont to do each time he brings funds to the city.

As it turned out, the extra money was primarily for a “manual irrigation system” and “sprigging” and installation of “concrete pavers”. It was substantially a ghost project, because about 70% of the supposed scopes of work are mere paper work items, intended to justify the expenditures. That huge chunk of the money went into the pocket of somebody, and I won’t even have to mention who that somebody is.

The centerpiece of this pork barrel scam is a network of PVC pipes stretching about 1.2 kilometers. Under the program of work prepared by the DPWH, about P6.4 million was earmarked for this project. But a check on the ground fails to persuade us that Drilon (I specifically mention him, not DPWH, because he ordered all of these things) spent even a fraction of that amount for the watering system. Our chief photographer, Leo Solinap, went around the Iloilo Esplanade and saw PVC pipes sticking out of the ground. There were no valves or faucets. It wasn’t working.Image

An ordinary layman will not find it hard to conclude that this is a scam. Drilon had the money, but he didn’t even bother to provide for a restroom facility which was the clamor of the people. He chose instead to flush down the drain taxpayers’ money for a sophisticated sounding plant watering system to the prejudice of the Filipino people.

Iloilo City fries on pork lard

There’s been a bonanza of infrastructure projects in Iloilo City which give the appearance of quickened growth and development.

The Benigno Aquino Jr. Ave. (better known as Diversion Road) is being widened with uneven surfaces. As this is being written, traffic jams are a daily occurrence just before the bridge crossing to Gen. Luna and Infante Sts. as work is implemented to add one lane to it. These projects have a total budget of P350 million. The Iloilo Esplanade, with a total length of 1.2 kilometers, was developed for P70 million. Across the river is Esplanade II, with a slightly smaller budget of P45 million.

The Elliptical Road which serves as a peripheral road that connects Leganes to Oton, passing through Pavia and San Miguel, was constructed at a cost of more than a billion pesos.

Many people are impressed at the slew of projects. Indeed, at no time in the history of Iloilo City has it witnessed a cascade of roads, bridges and other infrastructure in a short period of time. Credit is given to Senator Franklin Drilon, who allocated a huge portion of his pork barrel, and exerted his clout as then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to make this possible.

But little is being said about the cost efficiency and rationality of the projects. Nobody has challenged the pricing despite insinuations that these are grossly overpriced. There is also the issue of whether the expansion of the Diversion Road, and the bridge, are necessary in the first place. In the light of the pork barrel scam, I think the Ombudsman should investigate the issues about overpricing, and need, for the projects.

It’s hard to understand why the Diversion Road was expanded to eight lanes. It’s just a short stretch of road, although it’s become one of the busiest thoroughfares in Iloilo City. The road widening makes no sense.  At the end of the highway going to Molo is a four-lane bridge. The current configuration of six lanes makes it a formula for congestion by the time vehicles reach the foot of the bridge. The classic bottleneck problem arises.

Now that the highway is being widened to eight lanes, DPWH decided to add one lane to the bridge to make it six lanes. The first casualty of this project are commercial buildings on the southern bank of the river, including one where PAG-IBIG is housed. Moreover, the vehicles coming off this bridge will still head into congested roadways on General Luna and Infante Sts. It doesn’t make sense.

For me, the project is a big waste of money. It is also a source of big-time graft. The money allocated for this road widening could have been put to better use to build first-class roads in key sections of the city. Iloilo City isn’t just that burgeoning business district in Barangay San Rafael, Mandurriao. In fact, the neglect in other parts of the city, including the old downtown area, is causing economic blight in much of the city. An eight-lane 3-kilometer highway serves no good purpose. It’s only an excuse for more kickbacks to its patrons.

As the nation simmers in collective anger over the pork barrel scam involving Janet Lim Napoles, our people should also start looking at infrastructure projects like the ones we’ve seen in Iloilo City. These are huge sources of corruption. We should adopt a circumspect attitude when our public officials make a spectacle of ground-breaking for projects and ask: How much do they cost?

Ilonggos just don’t realize it. The city is being fried on its own lard.

Watchdog slams corruption in Dungon Bridge project

It was bad enough that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) demolished the Dungon Bridge even though its structural condition was still good for the overpriced cost of P36 million. What made it worse was that the “matuwid na daan” government of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III spent an additional P17 million to “widen” it into a four-lane bridge when modern technology could do the job at a cheaper cost.

Rick B. Ramos, executive director of the Citizens Infrastructure  Integrity Watchdog (InfraWatch), said there are several existing bridge projects in the country that utilized the metal plate connector technology to increase the vehicle handling capacity from two- to four-lanes. Among these is the Soro Soro Bridge in Binan, Laguna which was also implemented by the DPWH.

 

The Dungon Bridge was reopened to vehicular traffic two months ago after a public uproar over its delayed completion. When Ilonggos started using it again, they were aghast to discover that the four-lane design that cost them P53 million all in all had not been completed. The roadway on the bridge remained two lanes, with their money already down the drain.

The Dungon Bridge project was pushed by Iloilo City Representative Jerry P. Trenas with help from Senator Franklin Drilon, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. The money for the project came from “savings” of the DPWH, unexpended funds that were scooped from several completed projects to raise a total of P53 million. It was also Drilon who allocated the P65 million to buy the P7 million San Isidro relocation site for the urban poor.

Ramos said the P31.4 million, which later rose to P36 million, for the original contract of the Dungon Bridge project was excessive by itself. He reiterated that the bridge was still in good condition, and it would have been enough for DPWH to reinforce its columns, girders and abutments for more secure structure. But Ramos disclosed that a two-lane bridge project in Negros Occidental completed only last April cost only P21 million. Its length is almost the same as Dungon Bridge.

Ramos had written to DPWH secretary Rogelio Singson, who is always being praised as the paragon of transparency and honesty, about the Dungon Bridge last August 13. But his complaint has been ignored. Philippine Star columnist Boo Chanco wrote about the Dungon Bridge on Sept. 3 based on the Ramos letter. Singson never bothered to respond to him. In a Tweet on Wednesday, @boochanco said Singson has adopted a “deadma”, or indifference, stance towards criticism like this.