Puno aide: Why pick on me?
MANILA, Philippines - "Since when was it a crime to be in Israel?"
This was the response of Ramiro Lopez III, consultant of resigned Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno, to questions about why he was with Puno in Israel in May this year, on the same day of the second pre-conference for the procurement of arms for the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Puno said at a Senate hearing Friday, September 14, that he was in Israel on vacation with his family and Lopez at the same time that a procurement conference was held. He admitted that some police officials and gun supplier Reynaldo Espineli were there as well, but said he only saw them when the group went shooting.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago wondered why a consultant like Lopez would join Puno in a family vacation.
"Why was I in israel? Why not? I was primarily there because of Rico [Puno]," Lopez told Rappler in a phone interview. "It's not the first time I've traveled with Rico. I've traveled with him a couple of times over the years even before he came into office."
He admitted though that the timing is dubious but that he thought nothing of it at the time.
"The timing is questionable. I don't think anybody is making an [issue] about that, but I never looked at it that way," he said. "In hindsight, 'Uhhh ok. Maybe we shouldn't have done that.'"
Lopez was out of town during the Friday hearing, but said he had sent a letter sending his regrets that he could not attend.
During the hearing, Santiago questioned the role of Puno and Lopez as "observers" in the bid and awards committee that screened suppliers of firearms for the PNP. Both are gun enthusiasts; Puno himself was a former gun supplier.
Lopez was the former director of the Philippine Practical Shooting Association and ex-director of the Association of Firearms and Dealers.
Lopez said he does not understand why his involvement as an observer in BAC meetings is suddenly being questioned when there are often observers from the National Police Commission and NGOs in BAC meetings.
Puno hired him as his consultant in the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) shortly after the former was named to the position in July 2010.
"Most of the meetings [of BAC] I'm there," Lopez said. "More importantly, my presence in BAC meetings is to represent him [Puno]. I hardly speak at all."
He says he and Puno's other consultant, lawyer Carl Cruz, would go back to Puno with a report. "In the same way he [Puno] is the eyes and ears of the President, we are his eyes and ears in BAC meetings," Lopez said.
"Prior to this, my knowledge of firearms was 15 years involvement in shooting sports," he said. "On whether I should be there on technical capabilities, maybe it's best that you ask the PNP guys."
He shot down allegations he tried to influence the bidding. "I didn't influence anybody. You have to understand… in a bidding process, there's no way you can tailor the results for somebody. Particularly in an open bidding," he said.
According to Lopez, he knows it will be hard to convince the public that his trip with Puno to Israel was purely recreational.
"I hate to admit it myself, but I know that no matter how much i tell you, no matter how I put it, we were still there with the dealers," he said. "Were we there for any consideration? Was there anything being bribed? None." - Rappler.com