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Secrets of Nograles House could be exposed by FOI

June 7, 2010 8:33am
What secrets of the House of Representatives under Speaker Prospero Nograles will escape public scrutiny after Congress’s failed effort to ratify the Freedom of Information Act last Friday?

Many have asked that question after noting that Nograles himself had co-authored House Bill No. 3732, the lower chamber's version of the FOI bill, which was authored by a full two-thirds or 181 of about 220 House members.

The Speaker had also once described the measure as an effective tool in “attacking" the “deadly virus" of corruption. Said Nograles in a public statement he issued on April 2, 2008: “When there is full disclosure of all government transactions involving public interest, subject to limitations under the proposed Act, the people will have full confidence and trust in their public officials and therefore there will be effective governance."

Yet last June 4, at 5:07 p.m., he did a seeming 180-degree turn. “The session is adjourned sine die," Nograles said before he banged the gavel to close the 14th Congress.

The authors of the aborted bill have since disclosed that Nograles and his allies raised one big objection to the bill: it could be used to review and audit, in a retroactive manner, the deeds and decisions of lawmakers and public officials.

Contracts under wraps

TEXT BLAST VS FOI

By Annie Ruth Sabangan, PCIJ


A DAY before the Freedom of Information Act was supposed to be taken up at the House of Representatives, Speaker Prospero Nograles told media that text messages and phone calls were being made to ensure that House members would attend Friday's session for the ratification of the FOI bill.

“We are doing text brigades, we are calling them, we are reminding them to attend the last session all because we want the Freedom of Information to pass," Nograles told reporters.

The night before, however, a different text message was received by journalists and FOI advocates. Reportedly forwarded by a lawmaker “sympathetic" to the FOI bill, it urged House members not to attend the session.

The message read in part: “In view of the possible adverse impact of the pending Freedom of Information bill on the performance of the basic tasks of the government and the reported big rally of leftist groups at the House of Rep. to coerce congressmen to support said controversial bill, you may wish to join the many congressmen of various political parties who have decided not to attend the last session of the House..."

By that day’s end, the bill was dead – an event foreseen by several lawmakers.

“Gagawin nilang lahat ng puwedeng gawin (They will do everything they can)," Citizens' Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) party-list Rep. Joel Villanueva told 12 other lawmakers who attended a June 2 caucus at a Quezon City restaurant to strategize on how to get the bill ratified.

According to Villanueva, it was possible that the House leadership would even “sacrifice" other measures that were already included in the Congress’s last-day agenda just so it could block the bill.

“Walang ipapasa kahit ano (No measure will be passed)," Villanueva told his colleagues.

His prediction came true. A copy of the June 4 House agenda obtained by the PCIJ shows that eight other measures died alongside the FOI bill last Friday because of a supposed lack of quorum.

Among these were counterpart bills from the Senate awaiting adoption from the House: (1) S.B. 3206 or the Philippine Tax Academy authored by Sen. Panfilo Lacson; (2) S.B. 2020 or the Special Education Act of 2008 introduced by Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago; and (3) S.B. 3571 or the Anti-Racial and Religious Discrimination Act filed by senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Manuel Villar, Ma. Ana Consuelo ‘Jamby’ Madrigal, and Pilar Juliana ‘Pia’ Cayetano.

Another three bills needed concurrence from the House after these were amended by the Senate: (1) H.B. 7046 which proposes the conversion of the Quirino State College into a state university filed by Reps. Junie Cua, Cynthia Villar, Exequiel Javier, Jesus Crispin Remulla, Mariano Piamonte, and Cinchona Cruz-Gonzales; (2) H.B. 4361 or the proposed creation of the Bicol State College of Applied Sciences and Technology filed by Reps. Luis Villafuerte, Liza Maza, Luzviminda Ilagan, Ana Theresia Hontiveros, Danilo Ramon Fernandez, Florencio Garay, Guillermo Romarate Jr, Glenda Ecleo, Satur Ocampo, and Arnulfo Go and (3) House Bill 3675 which proposes the creation of the Balanga City National Technical Vocational High School filed by Reps. Cua, Albert Garcia, and Del de Guzman.

Two more measures, which like the FOI bill had bicameral conference committee reports, needed ratification from the House. These were the proposed act on prohibiting and penalizing the pilferage and theft and unauthorized use, interconnection or reception of any signal or service offered over a cable TV or cable Internet system under H.B. 1409 and S.B. 3530; and the proposed Philippine Immigration Act of 2009 under H.B. 6568 and S.B. 3404.

It was Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo of the Lakas-Kampi-CMD party -- who had once defended the First Couple in their August 2009 lavish $20,000-dinner at Le Cirque restraurant in New York -- who questioned the quorum and raised the issue on retroactivity before Nograles banged the gavel and declared the session adjourned.

Based on the House secretariat's count, only 128 lawmakers attended the June 4 session. But at least an hour before the attendance was checked, Villanueva said lawmakers at the plenary had already reached 137, which was more than enough to muster a quorum of 135.

At the June 2 lawmakers’ caucus, those in attendance had pointed to the matter of having a quorum as a vulnerable point. Observed Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara of the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino party: “The quorum is a parliamentary tool. It can be used to pass the bill or kill it."

“I think that the leadership is already talking about this," said Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante, chairman of the House Committee on Public Information and one of the lead authors of the FOI bill. “I feel that they will question the quorum."

Abante, regional director of the administration party Lakas-Kampi-CMD, also said during the caucus that he felt that he was being left clueless by Nograles. This was strange, he added, because the Speaker, who is his party-mate, had never done so before.

“In the past kasi Nogi (Nograles) and Art (Majority Leader Arthur Defensor) would call me everytime there was a problem," said Abante. “But I was kept blind on this (the FOI bill issue) now." – PCIJ, June 2010
Yet with or without the Freedom of Information Act, the House of the 14th Congress under Nograles may have to explain not just many old contracts that it has kept under wraps, but also a number that it is still bidding out – supposedly for use of the 15th Congress that is scheduled to convene on July 26 yet.

In fact, on the same day that the 14th Congress adjourned last June 4, Nograles’s ally, Artemio A. Adasa Jr., chair of the House’s Bid and Awards Committee, closed the bidding for the “supply and delivery of 325 pcs of Executive Tables and 25 pcs of Chairs for the Session Hall of the House of Representatives."

The approved budget for the contract: a staggering P8,067,500 for the 350 combined total of tables and chairs. This means that the unit cost of each table and chair the Nograles’s House wants to buy for the next House is a fabulous P23,050.

The bid notice signed by Adasa, former congressman from Zamboanga del Norte, was posted from May 29 to June 4 on the House website but has since been pulled down. The pre-bid conference is scheduled today, the opening of the bid documents on June 16, the issuance of the notice of award on June 18, and the delivery of the new “executive tables and chairs," within 30 days from the award of the contract.

Why the 14th Congress must purchase new tables and chairs for the Session Hall for use by the 15th Congress does not seem either proper or necessary, according to minority lawmakers.

For one, it does not look like the tables that lawmakers of the 14th Congress had hardly used need any immediate replacement. The House had recently bought new chairs for the lawmakers. For another, they note, the additional members of the 15th Congress from party-list groups and the new congressional districts would not expand the number of House members to more than 287.

(Nograles, a three-term congressman, had lost his bid for mayor of Davao City to Sara Duterte, the daughter of his archrival, outgoing Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Nograles will not even sit as member of the 15th Congress. His son and chief of staff, Karlo Alexei, ran and won the right to his vacated congressional seat.)

In default of COA procedures


Yet apart from the P8.06-million contract for tables and chairs, Nograles’s 14th Congress had also been found in default of audit and budget procedures by the Commission on Audit (COA).

The 2008 COA report on the House under Nograles noted that as of Dec. 31, 2008, unnamed congressmen and House personnel had failed to liquidate a total of P15.9 million mostly for travel expenses, incorrectly reported petty cash fund balances of P422,000, and had left P6.77 million worth of four security machines “not utilized and properly kept, and thus exposed to rapid deterioration."

The 2009 COA report on the House has not been publicly disclosed, but COA insiders told the PCIJ that a number of adverse findings are also enrolled in the report that should have been finished last April 30.

These adverse findings of the COA seem to contravene Nograles’s avowed commitment to uphold “transparency" and to “make every peso count" when he became Speaker in February 2008.

Nograles, in fact, wrestled the speakership from Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr., a long-time ally of outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, on a platform of “transparency."

But by all indications, instead of “transparency" in the conduct of its fiscal operations, the House under Nograles has distinguished itself for big and expensive infrastructure and supply and services contracts for renovation, beautification and modernization of the lower chamber’s physical facilities, and administrative processes.

Initially, Nograles seemed to have followed up on his pledge when the House uploaded on its website, www.congress.ph, details of the projects funded by the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – also known as pork barrel – of the House members.

In 2007, Nograles reported that his P35-million PDAF share assisted 36 various education, health and public works projects in his home district and region (Region XI). He said he gave P11 million for computer equipment purchases and scholarship programs for his home region, and P13.2 million for 24 multi-purpose buildings.

In 2008, while most other congressmen disclosed their PDAF-assisted projects, not a single Nograles project was reported on the House website. But as Speaker, Nograles had by then assumed command and discretion over not just his PDAF but also other bigger lump-sum funds in the House’s budget.

Big, bigger budgets

Over the years, the House under Nograles had awarded itself bigger and bigger budgets.

In 2007, the House gave itself a budget of P3.44 billion, and in 2008, P3.75 billion. In 2009, the House budget rose further to P4.6 billion and for the current year, rose again by a fourth to P5.53 billion. (These amounts exclude the appropriations for the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal or HRET that are also under the Speaker’s control.)

Of its P3.75-billion total budget in 2008, the House allotted P1.8 billion to maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE), P1.6 billion to personal services, and P115 million to capital outlay.

It was in 2009 that the House’s shift to big purchases became evident. Of its P4.6-billion total budget, nearly half or P2.2 billion went to MOOE, another P1.9 billion to personal services, and just P160 million to capital outlay.

In 2010, of the House’s total budget of P5.53 billion, more than half or P2.7 billion has been set aside for MOOE, P2.1 billion for personal services, and P398 million for capital outlay.

Many of the House’s various million- and billion-peso contracts have since raised allegations of being overpriced and “negotiated," with some of the accusations coming from inside the House itself.

For instance, in April 2008, the House acquired a P5.8-million air-conditioned bus with a 55-seat capacity.

In May 2008, Rosario ‘Bea’ Obsequio Riel, director of the House’s Internal Audit Department (IAD), blew the whistle on a P4.9-million contract to purchase fire extinguishers that were substandard and overpriced by 150 percent.

Riel also accused Adasa, deputy secretary general and Bid and Awards Committee chairman, of awarding the contract to his supposedly favored contractor, the First Defense Enterprises (FDE) owned by Leonor Dulay.

E-dinosaur project

There is also the case of a multimillion-peso disbursement for a House project that has yet to materialize.

In June 2008, the House boasted that a P15-million biometrics system for voting on the House floor would roll out once Congress opened its second regular session under Nograles.

Rodolfo V. Vicera, director-general of the Congressional Planning and Budget Department (CPBD) and director of the project that started under De Venecia’s term, had told reporters that the new system would have been online in August 2008.

Once in operation, he said, the system would feature “fingerprint voting through biometrics units installed per congressman’s table," in place of the manual counting of votes and the manual checking of attendance. Vicera said it would have “one central processing unit, 240 computer units each with Internet protocol-based gadgets and finger print scanner, two 3.66-meter x 4.88-meter multimedia projection screens at both sides of the plenary hall to show votes and attendance, and a 127-centimeter television set that will show schedules of committee hearings."

The House project is part of the so-called “ICT Projects Funded under the E-Government Fund" that was been covered by multimillion-peso disbursements from 2006 to 2008. According to a National Computer Center report, at least P169 million in public funds had been released by the Department of Budget and Management for the House project alone, as of December 2008.

To this day, the House voting and attendance-tally system remains the antiquated manual system. Even attendance records of congressmen are not aggregated, so that reporters researching this aspect of their performance must add up attendance records themselves by going through the minutes of each session.

Massive facelift

In June 2008, the PCIJ reported that ahead of the opening of the House’s second regular session with Nograles as Speaker, hundreds of millions of pesos had been spent on a massive facelift of the Old Batasang Pambansa building.

With an initial funding of P200 million from President Arroyo from undisclosed funding sources – because no such funds had been allotted in the 2008 budget of the House – the makeover of the House involved:

• 400 laborers worked around the clock in the last six weeks to opening of the House session.
• Repair of the canopy of the South Wing lobby that was damaged by a powerful bomb blast in November 2007. The initial bill of P9.7 million for this was sourced from funds of the House in February 2008.
• Use of the P200 million from Arroyo that Nograles requested for the repair, repainting, upgrade, and landscaping of the main and North Wing buildings of the House.
• Construction of a new four-storey South Wing annex building will rise at a cost of P300 million, courtesy of the Department of Public Works and Highways. (The project was started under De Venecia Jr, Nograles’s predecessor.).
• Purchase of two units of air-conditioned buses with 55-seat capacity worth P5.8 million each, or P11.6 million in all.
• Repair and construction of about 30 public comfort rooms worth up to P700,000 each, or at least P200 million in all..
• Purchase of 135 units of fire extinguishers, including 100 units with 20-pound capacity worth P20,720 each, inclusive of 12 percent value-added tax, or over P2 million had been purchased.
• Purchase of two ambulance units for the House medical clinic.

Also on the drawing boards of the House under Nograles by June 2008 were many other projects, including:
• The construction of a new building near the Batasan flagpole to house the library and archives, and museum of Congress.
• The full replacement of the dilapidated condenser pipes of the main building’s centralized air-conditioning system.
• The electrical rewiring and sewerage repair of the Batasan complex.
• T he replacement of four service elevator units, or two units each in the North and South Wings.
• The acquisition of more closed-circuit television surveillance cameras and other security equipment to further secure the complex.

As a matter of course, the House uploads on its website the bid documents for most contracts that it awards, but only up to the close of the call for bids. The House bidding process has been closed to representatives of the public, while the bid documents submitted by the participating contractors and the decision of the BAC are not disclosed at all.

Not surprisingly, suspicion lingers that many secrets have been kept under lock and key in the House. Supporters of the Freedom of Information Act thus argue that it would have served the public – and the House – well.

One lawmaker told PCIJ that if retroactivity was indeed the Speaker's major concern, it meant that “there could be skeletons in the closet that he did not want exposed." – HS, PCIJ, June 2010
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