By Ben Rosario
Lawmakers chided officials of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for pointing fingers at each other in connection with the P75-billion “insertion” in the proposed 2018 budget for the DPWH.
At Tuesday’s resumption of the congressional inquiry into the controversy hounding the 2019, members of the House Committee on Rules also assailed the Commission on Audit (COA) and Land Bank of the Philippines for their failure to tighten the screws that would have prevented flood control project contractors and their cohorts from hoodwinking government in the implementation of the multi-billion-peso flood control project in Sorsogon and Catanduanes.
Majority Leader Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya and Minority Leader Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez have implicated Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno in the two budget scandals being looked into by the Committee on Rules.
Andaya accused Diokno of involvement in the suspicious awarding of multi-millioin peso flood control contracts to J. T. Leoncio Construction which is a joint venture partner of Aremar Construction, a firm allegedly owned by Mayor Edwin Hamor, father-in-law of the budget chief’s daughter, Charlotte.
Diokno was also hit for allegedly masterminding the P75 billion budget insertion in the 2019 national budget.
Hamor showed up in the hearing but denied being related to Diokno. He stressed that it is his wife, Ester, who is the in-law of Charlotte, who is married to Ester’s son by first marriage, Jojo Sicat.
“Ang tawag niya (Diokno) sa akin mayor. Pero hindi ko balae,” Hamor said. “Mas lalong hindi ko kaano-ano si Diokno.” (He calls me mayor. I have no relation whatsoever to Diokno).”
The Casiguran mayor refuted allegations that Aremar Construction Corp. owned by his daughter cornered at least P551 million in government contracts in 2018 from the DPWH.
He also debunked the claim of Andaya Jr. that Aremar Construction Corp. was favored owing to his reported ties to the Budget Secretary.
“I divested before I assumed as mayor in 2016 in favor of my sister, Grace Hamor-Yu, and my daughter, Maria Minez Hamor,” the mayor told congressmen.
During the hearing, Andaya showed bank slips showing that Aremar received P81 million in deposits from contractors who were awarded flood control and other infrastructure contracts in Catanduanes and Sorsogon.
Mel George Racela, who represented the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), said the agency has not yet received any report from the LBP about the deposits although he admitted that red flags should have been raised on the bank transactions.
“We can provide assistance as long as we can establish the existence of the unlawful activity, which is in case, may be violation of graft or plunder,” Racela said in response to lawmakers’ query whether or not a money laundering investigation can be initiated by the AMLC.
Andaya chided COA for failing to closely monitor the implementation of various infrastructure projects in Sorsogon and Catanduanes. According to Andaya, Aremar’s business partner, CT Leoncio, simultaneously implemented at least 18 infrastructure contracts using only one set of heavy equipment.
“We haven’t noticed it because verification of availability of equipment is the responsibility of the bids and awards committee. Our job is to determine if the BAC has done the procedure. We only rely on post qualification reports,” said Sorsogon resident auditor Lorenzo Malaza Malaza.
Andaya said the contract irregularities that may have cheated government of billions of pesos may have been prevented had COA done its job.
Meanwhile, Sen. Panfilo Lacson expects a “bloody” bicameral conference committee meeting between members of the Senate and the Lower House over the latter’s plan to delete the P75-billion “insertion” from the DPWH’ proposed 2019 budget and realign it to key government projects.
“We have agreed to defend as a body the deletion and realignment of the P75 billion. As to where we would realign it, we have yet to discuss it,” Lacson said in a text message to reporters.
The DPWH initially requested for a P480-billion budget this year, based on cash-based budgeting system that the DBM wants implemented. The DBM, later, raised it to P555 billion under the National Expenditure Program (NEP).
DPWH Secretary Mark Villar told senators he was only informed of the increase when he saw the NEP, but said that he respects Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s authority over the budget.
Tina Rose Marie Canda of the DBM debunked claims by the DPWH that it was not consulted before the amount was included in the 2019 national budget.
Lacson expects the proposed deletion would not sit well with the House of Representatives.
“Magkakagulo sila sa HOR pag nawala ‘yon (The HOR would be in chaos once we remove it). That’s what the new leadership chopped and re-distributed among their allies since they suspected that the previous leadership was responsible for the additional P75 billion ‘insertion’ in the NEP,” Lacson said.
Lacson reiterated his suspicion that a “big chunk” of the P75 billion was “equally distributed” to the allies of House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Lower Chamber as “pork barrel” allocations.
The DPWH, he added, failed to justify in the plenary debate where the P75 billion would be spent.
“We have to make sure that the P75 billion, or part of that, would not be a ‘pork-to-pork’ realignment,” he said.
Lacson is looking into proposing the realignment of the P75 billion into specific infrastructure projects, such as the continuation of the Baguio-La Trinidad-Itogon-Sablan-Tuba-Tublay (BLISTT) Circumferential Road project. (With a report from Vanne P. Terrazola)