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.

The first 100 days of Manong Art

There was no pompous ceremony at the Iloilo capitol to mark the first 100 days of the Defensor administration last week. That’s because there wasn’t really much to boast about. Gov. Arthur Defensor Sr. gave a brief media interview in which he outlined the few things he considered accomplishments, like the tree-planting activity at the Maasin watershed (which his predecessor had religiously done for nine years, so nothing spectacular about it). But even Defensor didn’t seem too enthusiastic making a report, for he knew he had done nothing much.

But there were happenings during his first 100 days that Manong Art had consciously avoided because these were too embarrassing for him.

The first was his complete turn-around on his promise to the health workers of the province on the issue of the hazard pay. During the campaign, Defensor told health workers he sided with them in the legal battle with the Tupas administration over the benefits they claimed were rightfully due them under the Magna Carta for Public Health. It wasn’t a complicated promise: Defensor made them believe he would give them their allowances for the last several years.

The picture completely changed when Defensor assumed office on June 30 and the health workers, who obtained a favorable judgment from the Iloilo regional trial court, went to see him to ask for their expected bonanza. The health workers were not met with a smile; rather, a deep frown and an unfriendly tone told them the new governor wasn’t going to award them back benefits. Worse, the governor issued an ultimatum: accept my offer of the benefits commencing January 2010 onwards, or get nothing.

It was a painful emotional blow to the health workers who could have started getting these benefits, on a gradual, phase-by-phase, scheme, as early as July 2006. Governor Tupas had already constituted a committee which I headed to discuss the gradual implementation of the hazard pay scheme, only to be met by a civil suit before the court. This forced Gov. Tupas to suspend the plan and jsut wait for the court ruling. The court decision came in May this year, or about six weeks before Gov. Tupas was to step down from the capitol. He decided to leave the implementation to his successor.

The health workers had anticipated a moment of glee and thanksgiving when Defensor assumed office. They had started to count the eggs, so to speak, because they thought Defensor was with them on the issue. Instead, frustration quickly engulfed the ranks of the health workers. Now it’s a black mark for the first 100 days of Art Defensor as governor. Word of honor is gone from the lexicon of public governance.

The second is the waste of millions of pesos which Manong Art took from the province’s calamity fund. When the dengue fever threat reached unprecedented heights last August, Manong Art got a declaration of a state of calamity from the Sangguniang Panlalawigan and immediately set aside nearly half of the province’s 5% calamity fund for the purchase of medicines, IV fluids and other supplies. All in all, about P35 million was reportedly spent for this purpose, with a large chunk going to the purchase of generic drugs (read medicines from Pharmawealth of Ferj Biron).

Everybody knows that the dengue fever epidemic, if it can be called an epidemic, didn’t reach a magnitude requiring nearly half of the province’s 5% calamity funds. As a result, the epidemic has died down, and hundred of boxes of the purchases have been left unused in the capitol. Manong Art knew from the start he didn’t really need so much money to respond to the threat. But he had a debt of gratitude to pay, and he had the perfect cover to dispose of public funds.

Under Gov. Tupas, the province didn’t utilize the calamity fund unless absolutely necessary, as when the province was hit by Typhoon Frank in 2008. The fund was merely plowed back into the general fund, year after year after year. In February this year, as thousands of families suffered in hunger because of the El Nino phenomenon, Gov. Tupas asked the Sanggunian to let him use P5 million to buy emergency food supplies. That was a real calamity situation, and yet Gov. Tupas only asked for a small portion. Sadly, the Sanggunian controlled by allies of Manong Art rejected that request.

Third is Manong Art’s early announcement that henceforth, officials and employees of the Iloilo provincial government can no longer expect the big year-end bonuses that Gov. Tupas had generously extended, even to the point of engaging agencies like COA in legal combat. Gov. Tupas recognized that provincial employees are grossly underpair, and even the partial implementation of the Salary Standardization Law II this year isn’t enough to raise their standards of living. The year-end bonus became a mechanism for Gov. Tupas to “level the playing field” for employees.

But Manong Art made it clear that provincial employees will no longer enjoy that perk. He’d rather spend it on buying additiional heavy equipment for the province and generic medicines for dengue for the most obvious of reasons. For Manong Art, provincial employees are the least of his worries. Just as he had done with the health workers, he’s always ready to kick their butts if they don’t bow to his wishes. It’s a sharp contrast to the management style of Gov. Tupas who always put the welfare of ordinary rank-and-file employees on top. This early, the employees are feeling demoralized, unwanted, poorly motivated.

Manong Art will be known for his campaign of dismantling the legacy of Gov. Tupas at the capitol. And his determined effort to bring jueteng into the province in the form of the STL operations of the Eddie Gonzales-Iggy Arroyo combine will capture first place in his list of the dismantled legacies. Gov. Tupas waged war against illegal gambling in Iloilo for nine years, turning down handsome and tempting bribes along the way. He even banned STL in the province because he felt that gambling for the poor will not develop unhealthy values toward work among them. It ranks as one of his best legacies as governor. Defensor is about to undo that.

Towards the end of the first 100 days, Manong Art formally endorsed the application of Around the World company, the STL firm operated by Eddie Gonzales and Iggy Arroyo, to commence operations in the province. Why Manong Art chose an outsider over a local STL operator is rather strange. In fairness to the local STL operator, it had never been known to engage in jueteng or daily double. It’s no secret that Eddie Gonzales and Iggy Arroyo want jueteng to start business in Iloilo, and they apparently have made Manong Art and his provincial administrator industrial partners in the enterprise.

What strikes me as even more puzzling is the lack of opposition from the Church. Has the Church given up on the issue? How about the other civic groups and NGOs?

Well, the first 100 days of Manong Art’s administration have come and gone, and as I said, it was marked more by the unsavory things he has done than anything good for the province. Let’s see if the local media will now take off the gloves and treat his administration with objective scrutiny. I’d like to be proven wrong about my perceptions, but this early, we have already seen how the next two and a half years will unfold at the Iloilo capitol.

Around the world of jueteng

My sources were proven right yesterday when ABS-CBN TV Patrol Iloilo ran a story about the “letter-request” of Around the World Corp. to Iloilo Governor Arthur Defensor Sr. for an endorsement to operate the small town lottery (STL) business in the province of Iloilo. The letter was dated October 5, 2010. This is a corporation owned by the combine of Jose Pidal (a.k.a. Iggy Arroyo) and jueteng lord Eddie Gonzales, with a top official at the Iloilo capitol as secret partner. It wants to introduce the province into big-time jueteng with STL as cover.

As already mentioned in an earlier post, Gonzales is a bigtime jueteng operator in the Bicol region who was among those exposed by retired Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz as one of the country’s jueteng lords.

According to Defensor, he wants “extensive consultations” with the people before he decides on the application. Of course, he is lying. The public hearings that the Sangguniang Panlalawigan intends to hold are only a formality. The issue has been decided several months ago. Defensor and his provincial administrator, Dr. Raul Banias, owe a debt of gratitude to their bosses, Mike and Iggy Arroyo, and quickly agreed to let Gonzales, an outsider from Bicol, to run the business here even if there is a local STL operator.

Mark my word: Defensor will not countenance any opposition to the STL business of Eddie Gonzales as cover for jueteng. This is the same Arthur Defensor who double-crossed the Iloilo health workers on the issue of the hazard pay, making his predecessor Niel Tupas Sr. look bad during the campaign and promising them a bonanza, only to renege on his word after he assumed office at the Iloilo capitol. This is the same Arthur Defensor Sr. who served as knight in rusty armor to defend Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when he was majority floor leader in the House of Representatives.

As the rest of the nation condemns jueteng, Arthur Defensor and Raul Banias are rolling out the red carpet for the jueteng business of Eddie Gonzales to Iloilo province.

Changing complexion

A very popular product these days is glutathione, which supposedly helps individuals with dark complexion turn lighter. In the province of Iloilo, it’s not this product that is about to change its complexion. It’s a game called jueteng in the guise of small town lottery. And the initiative to change the complexion of Iloilo province is coming directly from the Iloilo capitol.

For nine years, the previous administration under Governor Niel Tupas Sr. blocked the entry of jueteng into the province despite the many tempting offers. Just before the 2004 local elections, a group claiming to represent Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson approached him to secure his approval for the illegal numbers game to operate in the province. In exchange, the group promised a monthly share of P1 million, “just for a start”, and this amount could go higher should the operation reap bigger profits. Governor Tupas asked his guests to leave his house at once, never to ever come back.

Governor Tupas was passionate about his campaign to stop all illegal activities in the province, and illegal gambling was on top of his list. When the PCSO granted a franchise for a small town lottery (STL) company to set up shop in Iloilo City, he was again approached for his consent to allow its operations to extend to the province.  STL offered a fixed share of its earnings to the province of Iloilo to help the LGU look after its indigents. It was all legal. But then again, Governor Tupas was uncompromising about his stand against illegal gambling. He said “no”.

This was the reason Iloilo became known as a “jueteng-free” province during the years Governor Tupas ran the province. He was one of a handful governors given an award by the Krusadang Bayan Laban sa Jueteng headed by the anti-jueteng crusader, then Lingayen archbishop Oscar Cruz. Governor Tupas is a believer that gambling is bad for the people, and he stuck to this position until his third term ended on June 30, 2010.

But that is about to end. A few days after Governor Tupas left the capitol, two or three illegal gambling operators set up shop in Pototan, Iloilo, known to be the bailiwick of the new governor. The message was instantly clear. These jueteng (known in Iloilo as “daily double”) had the blessings of the capitol. Who would dare operate the illegal numbers game from Pototan if he didn’t have approval from the governor? And right in his own backyard?

This was followed by negotiations to allow a new company to operate STL in the province. Dr. Raul Banias, the provincial administrator, formed a partnership with Jose Pidal (a.k.a. Rep. Iggy Arroyo) and jueteng lord Eddie Gonzales to operate this business, which will be a front for jueteng, in the province. During an informal meeting with municipal mayors last July, Governor Art Defensor Sr. began soliciting the support of local chief executives and board members.

The move is now being readied for the final approval in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, but kinks have emerged when municipal mayors learned that the business would be monopolized by the Pidal-Gonzales-Banias combine.  The mayors had the impression there would be a “spirit of free enterprise” in the whole gambling business, in which they will be given a free hand to choose what company to operate in their jurisdictions. Defensor is caught in a bind, because he had already committed the business to Pidal and Gonzales through Banias.

Defensor, however, is confident the move to bring jueteng into the province will push through. He considers the kinks that slowed down the effort as minor irritants. He is determined to change the complexion of Iloilo province from “jueteng-free” to “jueteng country.”