Questions for COA (Part 2)

More than two years have now gone by since the anomalous bidding was conducted by the Iloilo City government for the City Hall building project with an approved budget for the contract (ABC) of P455 million. Apparently, the contractor, F. F. Cruz and Co./Freyssinet Filipinas joint venture, had already been paid its price tag of P368 million. The Commission on Audit (COA) did not find anything wrong with the bidding process and the project implementation.

With that irregularity having been allowed to go unmolested, COA, supposedly the official watchdog against corruption and fraud in government transactions, allowed the theft of more than a hundred million pesos. It validates the perception that COA has lost its sting, a toothless tiger that can hardly murmur its protest when powerful politicians snarl at its officials. It shows that its auditors play the role of the three monkeys — hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil — to the detriment of the public interest.

But the negligence, incompetence and plain ignorance of COA auditors did not end there. In the middle of last year, City Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog announced the supplementary works for the completion of the monumental anomaly would be awarded to the same contractor through negotiated procurement. In other words, the second contract wouldn’t undergo the competitive bidding process that is enshrined in Republic Act No. 9184, or the Government Procurement Reform Act.

Ostensibly, Mabilog wanted no delays in the project. At that time, he had wanted the building ready for inauguration when the city government celebrated its 74th charter day anniversary. It was apparent, however, he wanted to push the contract on a silver platter so that his bloated P260 million price tag won’t be reduced in a public bidding. That supplementary contract, as confessed by the city’s own project consultant, Conrado Goco, could be finished with just P45 million. Naturally, other bidders can offer to do it for P50 million and still reap big profits.

Efficiency and cost-cutting were apparently not in Mabilog’s agenda when he pushed for the award of the supplementary contract to the same contractor. He wasn’t inclined to make sure Ilonggo taxpayers are not burdened by extravagant, unnecessary expenses by its government. The obvious motivation is maximizing the “cut”, or the “kickback”. That purpose could not be achieved if the contract is undertaken through public bidding.

It was the media that raised the issue about a negotiated contract being inapplicable, hence, illegal, for the supplementary works. This forced Mabilog to seek the counsel of the COA if indeed he could not avail of a provision in RA 9184, particularly its Implementing Rules and Regulations, that defines the circumstances under which negotiated procurement is allowable. The phrase “adjacent and contiguous” is the general standard here, but it covers only similar scopes of work.

As Atty. Quintin Magsico, an expert on the government procurement law, put it, “you have to be able to compare apple with apple in computing the unit costs” for the new contract. In this case, that was not possible, because the scopes of work were entirely different from the original contract. The first contract involved civil works, or the structure itself, and involved concrete and steel bars. The second contract involved the electrical, plumbing, firefighting, data cabling, partitions and other components for the operation of an office building. There is no basis for price comparison.

I spoke with Ms. Ofelia T. Demegillo, the audit team leader of COA, and she disclosed the agency had advised Mabilog that the supplementary works would have to undergo public bidding. Basically, she validated our observation that the supplementary works didn’t meet the standards set by RA 9184 for negotiated procurement. After that meeting with COA, Mabilog also conceded defeat. He announced a “transparent and competitive public bidding” for Phase Two of the project.

The promised public bidding, however, never happened. Mabilog deceived his own constituents. He lulled the public into believing he would follow the law. The weeks went by, and nothing was heard from him. All of a sudden, sometime in October, workers of the project contractor were back at the site and resume their construction activities. The media noticed it, and asked Mabilog. Sheepishly, he admitted the contract had been awarded to the F. F. Cruz and Co./Freyssinet Filipinas joint venture.

What happened to the COA statement that the supplementary works did not fall under the “adjacent and contiguous” category? When probed by reporters, Mabilog and his chief legal officer Atty. Jose Junio Jacela said “COA advised us it was okay to do so.” Was there a change of heart on the part of COA?

COA owes the public an explanation. It can’t keep quiet on this issue. The first contract was a huge anomaly. The second contract is not yet fully paid, hence, there’s still an opportunity for COA to stop the hemorrhage of public funds. All in all, the city has earmarked P710 million for the project. About half of that amount represents the overprice. Will the COA give its stamp of approval?

If that happens, then we might as well seek the amendment of the constitution and disband COA. The City Hall project will be a monument to its ineptness in stopping corruption.

Questions for COA (Part 1)

It’s hard to get information from the Commission on Audit. Almost everything that it handles is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. But it doesn’t mean we will just resign to this sense of helplessness. We have to bring the case to the general public. If it doesn’t fulfill its constitutional mandate, then we could demand accountability through media. We need to keep the people informed.

With this in mind, I will list several questions for COA pertaining to the scandalous Iloilo City Hall project. The contractor has cleared the temporary fence in front of the project to get it ready for the formal turn-over to the city government. Now the facade of the building is fully visible to passers-by, and constituents can get a close-up look at what could be the most expensive City Hall in the country.

Let me mention that City Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog must really be pissed off that the project wasn’t ready for inauguration last weekend. I know he had wanted to show off the building and deodorize the stink by inviting President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas. It’s a good thing they avoided legitimizing the anomalies by gracing the inauguration.

First, I would like to ask COA what it has done about the anomalous major revision of the project’s building plans and specifications about two weeks before the dropping of bids. When a project is advertised for bidding, its specifications are as complete as possible, with the approved budget for the contract (ABC) indicated. In this case, the original solicitation of bids called for a complete building, ready for occupancy, with all the amenities included. The estimated cost was P455 million.

Republic Act No. 9184 allows the agency undertaking the project to issue bid bulletins for “modifications” to clarify ambiguities or supply more detail to the plans to help the contractors make a responsive bid offer. There is no room for misunderstanding here. “Modification” means minor changes in the specifications, or tightening up the specs to avoid any miscalculation. It doesn’t change the essence of the project. It was supposed to be a complete building, RFO (acronym for ready for occupancy).

But the administration of then City Mayor Jerry P. Trenas introduced a gigantic anomaly when it revised the plans and specifications. It removed major components of the projects and left only the structural shell. In an instant, the project was changed from a complete City Hall to just its skeletal structure with outer walls. No elevators. No electrical and data wiring. No firefighting system. No elevated parking. No partitions and furniture. No airconditioning. And more.

By simply issuing a bid bulletin under the guise of a “modification”, the Trenas administration carved out nearly one-half of the original project. There was no justification. And it was done in treachery. Nobody outside the mayor’s office knew that the city government was putting up a half-finished City Hall.

Normally, such drastic changes in the project specifications, in which major parts or components are removed from the scopes of work, would require a reduction of the estimated costs. That’s only logical, because the removal of major scopes of work meant less costs for materials, labor and overhead.

Here lies the first big anomaly — the Trenas administration kept the ABC at P455 million. In effect, it was going to pay an amount equal to the whole for just half of the project. It is a giant swindle pulled off by the local chief executive.

It wasn’t surprising that the winning bidder submitted an offer for P368 million. Trenas was jubilant in announcing the award of the contract to F. F. Cruz and Co./Freyssinet Filipinas joint venture. It represented a savings of P87 million, he boasted. Indeed, such a drop in the winning bid should be cause for rejoicing for an agency that wants to implement a project with economy.

It was a false boast, however. With the revision of the project specs, the real cost estimate for the project should have been 50% lower, or P270 million. At P368 million, the contractor was still going to reap an overprice of P98 million, a huge bonanza that is clearly bound to be divided among top officials of the city.

The Bids and Awards Committee, apparently acting upon orders of Trenas, distorted the meaning of the word “modification” and dismembered the building to pave the way for a huge windfall. It smacks of dishonesty, fraud and simple corruption! I feel like puking at the calm demeanor of Trenas in claiming to have saved P87 million!

Will the COA pretend not to have seen anything or heard anything about this? Will it cover-up the glaring irregularity which makes a mockery of the law? Sadly, its actions don’t seem to point to safeguarding the public interest. It doesn’t seem inclined to stop the irregularity based on this unlawful “modification”. That transaction took place two years ago yet.

This is a clear case of graft and corruption that will haul Trenas and other officials of the city government before the Sandiganbayan. It’s not really too late for COA to prove it’s made of tougher stuff. It can expose this anomaly and file charges before the Ombudsman.

The rise and fall of Jepoy Celiz (Part I)

It ended almost as abruptly as it began. Jeffrey Celiz, former “post boy of the left” as a female journalist described him, swiftly rose to prominence when City Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog designated him as official spokesman about half a year ago. Last Friday, Celiz plummeted to the ground, facing a future in obscurity, after Mabilog replaced him with Lucy Montealto-Sinay.

The move represents a dramatic turn in Mabilog’s communications strategy. Celiz was combative; Ms. Sinay is calm and unassuming. Insults and foul language constituted the armory of Celiz; Ms. Sinay will stick to facts and figures. Celiz behaved like he was the assistant city mayor, overshadowing a host of senior officials in City Hall. Ms. Sinay knows her place in the organization. Celiz was used to intimidation, and liked to give people the dagger look, often using his past association with the NPA to frighten enemies. Ms. Sinay will use charm and persuasion.

Celiz fell with a loud thud. Within minutes of Celiz’s being stripped of the job, word spread like wildfire through text messages in the local media community that the loud-mouth had been plastered. Celiz was no longer spokesman. Mabilog has had enough of his foul language. The city mayor realized that instead of helping clarify issues, his erstwhile spokesman only served to deepen the controversies. Rather than fend off charges and serve as lightning rod, Celiz succeeded in antagonizing more people and turned believers into non-believers.

Now that we can talk of the imbecile in the past tense, let’s examine what happened in clinical fashion and understand why Celiz fell as quickly as he rose. His case is instructive to those who might join this business of communications.

No leader can shrug off communications as an important component of his or her leadership strategy. It is the leaders link to his or her followers. A leader must keep in mind that success depends largely on the support from the masses.

CREDIBILITY. The first flaw we found in Celiz was the lack of credibility. From day one, he was a monster — a Frankenstein — who spewed tons and tons of words without delivering an iota of truth. Who could possibly believe him? Only a few years ago, Celiz screamed in condemnation against corruption. All of a sudden, he was trying to defend corruption. His role as spokesman and defender of the throne was a big anomaly. He was ill-suited for the job. And his style underwent no change; it was tailor-fit for the “protest and condemn” mode.

Even the language used by Celiz was not appropriate for the role as spokesman. He forgot that he was an alter ego of his principal, Mabilog. By firing off expletives, curses, insults and the like, he was painting an ugly picture of Mabilog. His language became the language of Mabilog.

As a result, businessmen and citizens who had supported Mabilog were shocked and terrified. How could they support a leader who was cloaked in scandal and used profane language? Celiz didn’t realize he was no longer in the streets. When he joined City Hall, he should have undergone a personality change. His manners and language should have turned from coarse to refined.

ARROGANCE. It was Lord Acton who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The phrase aptly describes what happened to Celiz when he was given that brief opportunity to walk in the corridors of power. If there is one word that best applies to Celiz, “arrogance” would be it.

In the one-half year that he performed the role as official spokesman of the city mayor, Celiz oozed with arrogance. His actions smacked of abuse of power. He harassed people. He assaulted the mayor’s enemies verbally and through the “adobo ilonggo” blogs that he maintained with the “lin-ay sang sinadya sa suba”. He usurped authority and stepped on the toes of his own co-workers in the Iloilo City Hall. He loved power and he wasn’t shy about it.

In a way, Celiz became a victim of his own making. Celiz spent a great deal of time concocting schemes to undermine his rivals for Mabilog’s attention. One antic he liked to do was to create issues about his co-workers in City Hall and feed these to media. When radio commentators bring up such issues on their programs and start hitting Mabilog, Celiz would quickly call them up and deflect the issues against his boss. This way, his co-workers looked bad to Mabilog and he would be the “hero”.

Among those he stabbed in the back were City Administrator Norlito Bautista, Senior Special Assistant Victor Facultad and erstwhile media liaison officer Richard “Boboy” Sombero. He also liked to spread falsehood about radio and newspaper personalities who dared make negative comments about Mabilog. He often posted unsavory blog comments about certain media personalities being on the payroll of Rommel S. Ynion. He was a master of black propaganda.

What he didn’t figure was the ability of his rivals in City Hall to hit back at him. Stupidity is a trademark of Celiz, and his enemies in the Mabilog inner circle were quick to point them out to the city mayor. They found allies in the business sector, especially the Filipino-Chinese, who found Celiz’s tactics to be self-defeating. It reached a point that Mabilog could no longer stomach the blunders and misdeeds of Celiz. On Friday, he was told he was no longer official spokesman.

Is the COA inutile? | The Iloilo News Today

Read my column in The News Today about how the Commission on Audit could have prevented the plunder of tens and even hundreds of millions of pesos in public funds by Augusto Boboy Syjuco:

 

Is the COA inutile? | The Iloilo News Today.

Unmasking Jepoy Celiz

Over the last several months, Jeffrey Celiz, who was known for his vitriolic tirades against corruption and abuses in government, had spent most of his waking hours spewing fire and mud and scum at almost anybody who dared criticize his boss, City Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog. I am number one in the hit list of Celiz, who projects himself as the “poster boy of the leftist movement”, and he has also organized a group on social media to wage a black propaganda campaign against Mabilog’s critics.

I have refrained from answering back at Celiz in like manner. In a public debate, there is no hitting below the belt. I adhere to the rule that only issues must be tackled, even though the Mabilog-Celiz vilification campaign has felt at liberty to drag innocent people into the fray. Their operational objective is “hurt as many people, even by-standers, to discourage critics from pursuing inquisitive endeavors”. Even small children are not spared. Families and friends of their targets are attacked as well. In a big way, they operate like the Al Qaeda. They are the worst online terrorists.

Recently, I have been approached by long-time friends who felt the truth about Jepoy Celiz should now be exposed. A lot of people in the community are aghast at the way he spews bile and filth on the airlanes, with total disregard for the broadcast code of ethics. His language is often inappropriate, and his penchant for evading the real issue has irritated even businessmen who were sympathetic to Mabilog. For many people, he is the biggest threat to decency in communications. These friends have fed me with information about Celiz.

I have confirmed that Celiz is a fake communist. He is only trying to project himself, and sound like one, to be a passionate communist who wants to fight the ills of society. It is a cover that he picked from his past to shield Mabilog from the scandals that have erupted all around him in the city government of Iloilo. With this label, he hoped to mislead the public into believing Mabilog could not possibly be guilty of crimes which are anathema to the communist ideal. Corruption is a mortal sin in the eyes of CPP/NDF/NPA.

No less than a high-ranking leader of the CPP/NDF/NPA in Panay island conveyed this message to me through emissaries. “Wala na ina siya koneksyon sa hublag (He is no longer connected to the movement),” I was told. In fact, I was told that during a reunion of former NPA rebels and activists in Ibajay, Aklan, where the body of former NPA leader Warren Calizo was laid in state, Celiz became the butt of jokes. “From extreme left to extreme right,” was how one former leftist activist put it. Celiz has sold his principles, which isn’t really unexpected considering his own misdemeanors that led to his expulsion from the Party.

Celiz didn’t leave the left on his own volition, my sources said. Sometime in 2006, Celiz was caught pilfering funds of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) which he headed then. This is an offense known as “F.O.”, or financial opportunism. As punishment, Celiz was stripped of his position as Bayan-Panay secretary general and sent to the mountains of central Panay for “re-orientation”. After a while, he was dispatched to Samar to prove himself worthy of his Party membership. The hard life in the boondocks of Samar made him realize he wasn’t cut to be a revolutionary. He was “all fury, but no substance”.

Celiz fled. He didn’t resign, as there is no such thing in the underground movement. He hid, begging then Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez to protect him. When the leadership of the CPP/NDF/NPA learned about his cowardly act, he was expelled. There was no glory or honor in what he did. He was a disgrace to the movement.

Ultimately, Celiz was provided with employment by then City Mayor Jerry P. Trenas. It was part of the refuge provided to him by Gonzalez. As fate would put it, Mabilog defeated Gonzalez for the mayorship, and Celiz was handed over to the new mayor. A glib talker, Celiz got the mayor to make him right-hand man. He sweet-talked Mabilog into making him spokesman.

As part of his compensation package, Celiz was awarded a lot at the Sooc, Mandurriao relocation site, which is supposed to be earmarked only for dislocated families as a result of the flood control project and other government infrastructure in the city. Lots in relocation sites are hard to get, even for indigent families who have been uprooted from their old homes. But for Celiz, it was a matter of privilege. Never mind that more deserving families were deprived of relocation lots; what was important to him was reward for his blind loyalty to Mabilog.

Celiz is indeed privileged. Mabilog didn’t give him just one lot. He got two. The other lot was awarded to his mother-in-law.

Definitely, Celiz could not possibly be qualified for a relocation lot. He is gainfully employed. He wasn’t affected by the flood control project. He and his family live in Tanza Timawa, Molo. In fact, his wife, who is also a job-hire worker in the city government, is a barangay kagawad. The award of this lot in Sooc, Mandurriao is an anomaly that the Jepoy Celiz of the old Bayan days would have denounced.

In this light, it is easy to understand the ferociousness with which Celiz carries out his job as Doberman attack dog for Mabilog. He is well-fed with bones through crooked and irregular means by his master. He has no choice but to defend his master even though he knows about the massive corruption in City Hall. He is compelled to tell packs of lies, knowing he could never justify the wrongdoings. Otherwise, the bones could be taken back from him.

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.

Culture of impunity (Part I)

The main focus in the war against corruption has been fixed on national scandals. That’s probably because there have been so many gargantuan transactions that leave the ordinary citizen trying to figure out how much has been stolen. In terms of magnitude, a number of scandals that have erupted in Iloilo City could equal, or even surpass, the corruption on the national level.

Number one on the list is the Pavia housing project anomaly. Here’s a project where more than P130 million have gone to waste, with not a single housing unit being completed and used for the purpose of providing affordable shelter to ordinary City Hall employees. It’s not exactly a ghost project, but the dilapidated structures that still stand on the city-owned property in Pavia stand as silent, mute witnesses to this slaughter of decency and honesty in governance.

So far, after six long years, nobody has been formally charged before the Sandiganbayan. The Ombudsman handed down a resolution a year ago that found probable cause against former City Mayor Mansueto Malabor and several other respondents. But no Information has been filed before the Sandiganbayan which is the next step in the judicial process. Without an Information, there is legally no judicial case. No warrants of arrest can be issued.

Strangely, one of the key players in the Pavia housing anomaly, Iloilo City congressman Jerry P. Trenas, was spared in that resolution. The allegations against him have been pushed back to the Field Investigation Office (FIO) of the Ombudsman for “further review and investigation”. After a year, the reinvestigation does not appear to have moved an inch. In fact, there is grave danger it might altogether vanish into thin air.

Number two on the list is the P63.2-million purchase by the city government under then City Mayor Trenas of a 16.2-hectare agricultural land in Barangay San Isidro, Jaro in January 2006. The transaction was fraught with irregularities, and it was only last July when Trenas was finally charged before the Ombudsman for his indispensable participation in the massive anomaly. This is a classic case of an overpriced purchase in which public officials conspired to make it happen.

As documents show, the property had an assessed value of only P330,480. The fair market value, which is the estimated price it will fetch in the real estate market, was placed at P2.7 million. There was nothing about the property that would have made it attractive. Having dabbled in the real estate business myself, I’d estimate the property could have reasonable been sold at P85 per square meter. The whole deal could have been sealed at P13.8 million with the seller feeling satisfied at having obtained a good price.

But Trenas didn’t play his part as a diligent public official. Because of his position, he was supposed to exercise prudence in how he spent the people’s money. He should have endeavored to strike a good bargain. Aside from big property developers, only government can really afford to buy wide tracts of land.

In the case of private developers, that San Isidro property wouldn’t even have warranted a second look. Its location wasn’t suitable for a housing development. It was far from the nearest road, there was no electricity, and there was no water. That factor alone was enough to depress its price.

Trenas ignored all these considerations. Instead of trying to haggle for a much lower price, he agreed to a buying price of P392 per square meter. This is the selling price for raw land properties in areas close to the main highways like Mandurriao, where existing subdivisions make them more saleable to customers once developed.

What Trenas did was manipulate the paperwork to justify buying the property at that stiff price. That is a betrayal of his oath of office. It was a crime against the people. Based on the circumstances, we can safely assume what the motivation for Trenas was: kickback.

Number three on the list is the City Hall project.

I will discuss the details of this big anomaly in my next column. But let me just say that our city officials, past and present, have become bolder and bolder in their schemes to rip off the public treasury. And the only reason that happened is because nobody got punished even if caught. This is the classic description of a culture of impunity having taken root in a society.

Maybe these anomalies failed to capture the people’s imaginations because they’re not yet in the billions of pesos. The peso amount is not the point. It’s the degree by which huge portions of public funds earmarked for projects are stolen. In Pavia, we don’t even have a single house to justify the expenditure and loss of P130 million. In the San Isidro project, the overprice might just be in the vicinity of P50 million, but that represents 80 percent of the budget.

In the past, kickbacks were measured only in the 10-12 percent level of the project cost. Nowadays, it is commonplace to see half of the project cost going to corruption. That’s indeed unfortunate, and it can only happen because of this culture of impunity. (To be continued)