Salt can corrode P-Noy’s anti-corruption campaign

On May 30 and 31, the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) will be conducting region-based public biddings for the supply of salt intended as fertilizer for millions of coconut trees. The contract is worth hundreds of millions of pesos, and it appears a syndicate that controlled the supply of salt to the PCA is sharpening its knives to make another big killing. This consortium of companies is working closely with PCA board director Oscar Garin Sr. It’s a relationship that began more than three years ago when he was still PCA Administrator.

Not too many people understand the money behind salt as fertilizer for coconut trees. Salt isn’t just for the dinner table; it has been found to be good fertilizer material for the “tree of life”. Indeed, we’ve always associated the images of coconut trees with beaches. They grow better, and produce more nuts, in salty environments. When this idea came to Garin, he saw an avenue to make money, not for the industry as a whole, but for his own.

It was former Agriculture Secretary Leonardo Montemayor who exposed the overpricing and rigged bidding for a P1.89 billion salt fertilization project sometime in April 2008. Of course, Garin denied any anomaly in the transaction. But sources have stepped forward to validate the reported irregularities. They also pointed to the role of Garin in covering up the collusion among bidders that the Bids and Awards Committee had uncovered. Garin made sure there were no hitches.

What was this anomaly that Garin covered up? During the bidding, the two companies that took part were found to have only one and the same person as board secretary. It was a seemingly insignificant detail, but that had earthshaking consequences. It proved that the two groups were conniving to corner the project. It was a crude attempt to rig the bidding. But this didn’t result in the blacklisting of the suppliers. Garin just glossed this anomaly over, and he allowed the transaction to proceed.

According to sources, Garin held meetings with Artemis Salt Corp. and Saltland Corp. at the Sulo Hotel to iron things out. He made it possible for the two corporations to take part in the transaction despite blatant violations of RA 9184, or the Government Procurement Law, on collusion among bidders. Of course, it needs no saying that he got his cut from the deal.

Now Garin, even though he’s been demoted to a board position in the PCA, wants to use the salt fertilization project as a fountain of money. He is reportedly jockeying to have Artemis Salt Corp., and another company, J.Y. Corp., to take part in the bidding for this year’s requirements for the salt fertilization project and corner the transaction. With Garin’s meddling, Artemis was not sanctioned by way of blacklisting.

The big question is: Will the Aquino administration allow this mockery of his anti-corruption campaign to succeed?

To make the next bidding more transparent, the PCA has split up the supply contracts to its regional offices. It is supposed to give local salt producers a better chance to get a share of this project. But it appears Garin isn’t getting the message for him to back off. He is reportedly making use of his remaining clout and influence to corner a big slice of the contract with Artemis as his front.

Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala should immediately look into this. He should demand an explanation from the PCA Bids and Awards Committee why Artemis Salt Corp. wasn’t blacklisted and is, in fact, still being allowed to transact with the PCA. Artemis Salt Corp. is also selling imported salt from Australia. If this company snares the contract, then local producers will end up holding an empty bag. It will also put to naught the President’s campaign against corruption in an agency which has been marred by scandals during the incumbency of Garin as Administrator.