More trouble brewing at the Iloilo Capitol (2nd of a series)

On the first working day of 2011, Iloilo Gov. Arthur Defensor Sr. was fuming mad. “He was literally spewing fire,” a Capitol employee who witnessed the eruption of guvernatorial temper said. Defensor’s voice, weak as it is, roared with expletives. He got angry because no janitorial personnel was operating the elevator. The ROMAC Manpower Services Inc. which had faithfully and diligently provided janitorial services for the Capitol for six years decided to pull out its people.

It wasn’t an act of sabotage. It was the result of the Capitol’s new procurement system in which officials close to Defensor tried to outdo each other in pushing for their own business interests in awarding contracts for services and supplies. The corrupt system exploded right on their faces, and Defensor didn’t know he had stepped on his own landmine. Sources said ROMAC had participated in the bidding for janitorial services for 2011 last December. However, a member of the Bids and Awards Committee known to be an ass-kisser of Defensor told the management ROMAC “was certain to lose” because it was identified with the previous administration.

The BAC deliberately disqualified ROMAC on account of a minor technicality to enable a favored supplier to win the contract. ROMAC isn’t a patsy janitorial company. It has a number of satisified customers in Iloilo City that includes big malls and government agencies. It took pride in excellence in its services, and wasn’t about to beg for the contract from a corrupt administration. So on Jan. 3, 2011, it pulled out its people from the Capitol. This is what made Defensor very, very, very angry.

Sources said the provincial administrator has his own supplier. A town mayor from the 4th district also wants to push her own pet supplier. An executive assistant with “exclusive jurisdiction” over suppliers was not about to be outdone. The governor’s own people were jockeying to corner this juicy contract, and they ignored the fact that ROMAC’s services were due to expire on Dec. 31, 2010.

Defensor ordered ROMAC to bring its people back. “Our contract provides that we need to extend our services for one month should the provincial government fail to pick a new provider,” an executive of the company told me. The company relented, and the Capitol was swankingly clean and orderly again when its personnel went back to work. But the company is determined to stand on its principles. By Feb. 1, it will leave the Capitol for good. “We can’t stomach the corruption of the new dispensation,” said another executive. “We don’t want to appear as if we are being replaced because we are not doing a good job,” she added.

Defensor will have to rush the selection of a new janitorial services firm. He has only until Monday to do that. On Tuesday, Feb. 1, ROMAC will get out for good. It has fulfilled its obligation to extend for one month. It’s not going to stay a minute longer, said the first company official I spoke with.

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.

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.

Plandico Bay

I retrieved this investigative report written by Diosa Labiste for the Philippine Daily Inquirer sometime in 2001. It mentions the involvement of Raul Banias and Jett Rojas in fishpen operations in Plandico Bay, which I mentioned in my previous blog post:

Bay fish pens keep villages at low ebb”

by Ma. Diosa Labiste, Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 29, 2001
Privately owned fish pens and cages are choking the Plandico Bay in northern Iloilo and the source of livelihood of some 500 families of fishers and shellfish and fry gatherers. Three of the structures, which cover almost two-thirds of the bay, are being blamed not only for depriving the communities food and access to the bay but also for the rise in pollution and siltation in the water body. Brothers Juan and Julio Alvarez own two of the pens, and the third, the fishers claimed, is jointly owned by Mayors Jett Roxas of Ajuy and Raul Banias of Concepcion. The two officials have strongly denied the accusation.

Leaders of the fishing communities recently asked the provincial board to help rid the bay of the fish cages and pens. If these were not dismantled, they said, the bay’s resources would slowly dwindle, its waters would remain polluted and the small fishers would go hungry. The 160-hectare Plandico Bay lies between the territorial waters of Concepcion and Ajuy and drains into the Visayan Sea through an opening of a hundred meters. Also called the Tinagong Dagat (“The Hidden Sea” -gss) by the residents, the bay is ringed by mountains, making it suitable to year-round fishing. During high-tide, the whole bay is submerged. When the tide ebbs, especially during the monsoon months, only 30 hectares of the bay area is submerged.

The Plandico Bay serves as the fishing ground of some 500 families in Barangay Silagon in Ajuy and the adjoining villages of Nino, Plandico, Tamisaac and Macalbang in Concepcion. Families also gather clams and other shellfish, as well as catch shrimp and crabs that are abundant in the mangrove areas during low tide.

After years of trial and error, a group of fishers in 1997 pioneered the raising of bangus (milkfish) in fish pens in the bay. With 202 members, they organized the Silagon Multi-purpose Cooperative. Bangus raising, timed during the monsoon months (October to February), proved to be lucrative. The cooperative earned more than P500,000 and many members received P20,000 each in dividends.

News of the highly profitable venture spread and three more fish pens were built, but this time, by private investors. Unlike the cooperative, which gives the bay a rest after one crop season, the privately owned pens and fish cages squat inside the bay all year to harvest bangus. The presence of the new structures sparked resentment among the cooperative members and the residents. In a petition signed by more than 400 members, the cooperative blamed the private fish pens for preventing them access to the bay to fish and transport products….

…The presence of the fish pens at the bay, considered a natural harbor, has kept away fishing boats and bancas that used to beach and take shelter from strong waves and winds during typhoons. The cooperative complained that the fish pens at the mouth of the bay were blocking fish coming in to spawn. At least 75 percent of the bay entrance is obstructed by a network of bamboo poles and the nets of fish pens.

The presence of fish pens has turned the waters murky, raising fears that a fish kill may not be far-fetched. Only a fraction of the feeds given to milkfish is eaten because the feeds sink too fast, are too fine or are not easily digested. The cooperative computed that every year, about 880 tons of wasted commercial bangus feeds are deposited at the bottom of the bay. The concentration of feeds can use up a lot of oxygen….

….The provincial board has yet to release its findings, which will be submitted to Governor Niel Tupas Sr. for appropriate action. Yet, the board members agreed that the fish pens at the mouth of the bay should be dismantled to provide relief to the fishing ground. Under the Philippine Fishery Code of 1998, only 10 percent of the bay is allowed for fish farming. In the case of the Plandico Bay, the board members noted that the pens and cages already covered 70 percent of the bay….

Conflict of interest

One of the first statements that came from the new Iloilo provincial administrator was to belittle the accomplishments of former Governor Niel Tupas Sr. in the campaign against illegal fishing.  In his words, Dr. Raul Banias described the anti-illegal fishing campaign as nothing but an empty boast, pointing to the beat-up Bantay Dagat patrol boat as evidence. He also cited a decline in apprehensions during the last two years of the Tupas administration as an eloquent manifestation of such failure.

What Dr. Banias omitted was the fact that the provincial government was literally crippled by the incessant assaults staged by former Vice Governor Rolex Suplico and his allies in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan during the last three years. Fuel expenses were slashed, no money was allocated for boat repairs, and virtually every support needed to mount an effective campaign was wiped out from the face of the province’s budget. The Tupas administration had nothing to work with in terms of logistical support.

Even then, the anti-illegal fishing task force struggled to carry on its mission in stopping the destructive activities of illegal fishing operators in the seas of Iloilo province, particularly in the northern portion that includes Carles, Concepcion, Ajuy and San Dionisio where the richest fishing grounds are situated. Gov. Tupas tapped the help of barangay officials in Concepcion and Carles in this fight and released financial assistance to their LGUs to be able to build their own patrol boats. This is the reason that contrary to the lie peddled by Banias, illegal fishing was still kept to a minimum despite the imposed obstacles. No less than Dr. Ildefonso Toledo, provincial agriculturist, released statistics to show a different picture.

But there was one thing that Banias said that disturbed me. He was personally taking over the anti-illegal fishing campaign with a vow to mount an honest-to-goodness enforcement drive. What he is not saying is that this puts him in a conflict-of-interest situation. Not too many people know this, but Banias is engaged in the fish trading business. This started when he was still vice mayor of Concepcion where he controlled the buying-and-selling of marine products. During this time (until he became mayor), Banias didn’t raise even a whisper against illegal fishing. In fact, many of the illegal fishing operators were his suppliers. Several times when he was mayor of Concepcion, Gov. Tupas admonished him to stop his friends from plying their trade. Nothing happened. The seas of Concepcion proliferated with illegal fishing activities during his incumbency.

Now that he is provincial administrator, and poised to take control over the anti-illegal fishing campaign, Dr. Banias will enjoy unbridled monopoly over the fishing industry in Iloilo province. I challenge him to make a disclosure about his business interests in fish trading, to include his proprietary stake in a giant fishpen in the Plandico Bay between Concepcion and Ajuy in partnership with board member Jett Rojas.  This fishpen was subject of complaints from small fishermen for a long time. Two years ago, the DPWH had ordered it demolished, but Banias used his clout as Presidential Assistant to block that move. The fish business has made Banias rich.

I have a nasty feeling that allowing Dr. Banias to handle illegal fishing would be like giving the Kuratong Baleleng gang the combination to every bank vault in the country so they will just have to walk in and grab the cash without firing a shot.