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.

A matter of courtesy

A loud, collective gasp filled the session hall of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan last Friday when an official of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) told the legislative body sitting as a committee of the whole that the issue of small town lottery (STL) operations for Around D’World Gaming Corp was just being presented before it “as a matter of courtesy.”
It stunned senior members of the Sanggunian like board members Licurgo “Curging” Tirador and Demetrio “Demy” Sonza who rightfully took the statement as an insult to the legislative body.
The statement incensed Tirador, who immediately accosted PCSO Visayas operations manager Willian Medici if he had heard the latter right. Apparently, the statement sounded very much like the whole process was a mere formality in the eyes of PCSO.
Realizing that he had committed a grave blunder, Medici mumbled an apologetic explanation that it wasn’t intended as such.
But the phrase “a matter of courtesy” was a presumptuous act of arrogance on the part of PCSO, and glaring evidence that these officials, along with Governor Arthur Defensor Sr. and provincial administrator Dr. Raul Banias, considered the matter of Around D’World Gaming Corp.’s application a “done deal”.
It doesn’t matter much that nine out of 10 resource persons who spoke before the SP committee of the whole expressed strong opposition to allowing small town lottery, and not just Around D’World Gaming Corp., to operate the numbers game in the province.
Defensor and Banias will make sure the arguments against allowing STL into the province will be swept aside just to accommodate Around D’World Gaming Corp., for this is a business deal they had with jueteng lord Jose Francisco Gonzalez and Jose Pidal, a.k.a. Iggy Arroyo.
Indeed, the question must be asked: how and why did Around D’World Gaming Corp. manage to obtain a “midnight franchise” to operate STL in Iloilo province on May 19, 2010 before it could get a favorable endorsement from the local government unit?
For five years, nobody had gotten a PCSO franchise simply because the Iloilo provincial government under Governor Niel Tupas Sr. refused to approve it. In a split-second maneuver, these guys circumvented the rules and rushed approval of the franchise while Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was still President of the Republic.
After all, as early as May 12, Defensor was already governor-elect, and he assured the Gonzalez-Arroyo combine it was okay to proceed. There was a deadline to beat: June 30, 2010. That was when a new board would assume office, and they could no longer curry favors from PCSO. For them to wait for Defensor to formally assume the top seat at the Capitol would have been too late.
Defensor is telling everybody the province has no choice because Around D’World Gaming Corp. already has a franchise. He’s wrong. The new PCSO board cancelled the award of the franchise and required Around D’World to secure the requirements of an endorsement from the Sanggunian and the governor before its franchise can be acted upon. Technically, it has no franchise to speak of.
But then again, of course, it’s a done deal as far as Defensor and Banias are concerned. They will cajole Tirador and Sonza to forgot they heard those words, “a matter of courtesy”, from the PCSO officials. They will sweep all opposition under the rug and proceed with the business they want to bring to the province to make their old master happy, and reap the rewards of their favorable endorsement for the project.