Ombudsman dismisses 3rd complaint vs ex-DENR chief Lopez

Lian Buan
Ombudsman dismisses 3rd complaint vs ex-DENR chief Lopez
(3rd UPDATE) The Ombudsman says there was not enough evidence to support the claim that the trip to Paris taken by then-Environment Secretary Gina Lopez was allegedly a gift in exchange for a project

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – The Office of the Ombudsman has dismissed the 3rd graft complaint filed against former Environment Secretary Gina Lopez in 2017, which alleged that she had influenced the Department of Energy (DOE) to award a $100-million government project to a private company she favored.

According to the complaint filed by Vienna Tañada with the Ombudsman on March 16, 2018, Lopez pressured DOE Director Mario Marasigan to award the service contract for a power plant in Zamboanga City to Ecoglobal Incorporated (EI). Tañada was the business development officer of EI.

The complaint cited text messages allegedly sent by Lopez to Marasigan, questioning why there was a delay in granting EI its renewable energy service contract.

“Bakit kailangang mag-bypass ng isang government official sa isang government agency na wala naman siyang kinalaman?” Tañada told reporters. (Why does a government official need to meddle in the affairs of a government agency that she has nothing to do with?)

Tañada also accused Lopez of receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris from EI chief executive officer Jean-Philippe Henry, citing a letter from Henry to the French embassy in Manila pledging to shoulder the costs for Lopez’s “airfare, hotel accommodations, insurance coverage, and travel allowances for the entire duration of their business trip.”

The complaint cited messages sent through WhatsApp, which allegedly show Henry thanking Lopez for her intervention. The EI CEO also allegedly said in the messages that Marasigan “will not go” to Paris unless his company was awarded the contract.

Lopez and 5 companions left for Paris last October 2, or a day before the DOE awarded the contract to EI.

Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales dismissed the complaints against Lopez and Henry in a resolution September 15, 2017, a copy of which was provided to Rappler by EI on Wednesday, April 2, 2019.

“There is no probable cause against the respondents,” said graft investigation and prosecution officer Bonifacio Mandrilla, as approved by Morales.

Ecoglobal’s internal issues

Employees of EI and its sister company Ecoglobal Foundation Incorporated (EFI) had earlier filed separate complaints against Henry for allegedly making unauthorized withdrawals from company funds which were earmarked for a water treatment project.

Tañada also claims Henry has not given them 3 months’ worth of salaries.

EFI president and trustee Sabrina Simbulan said she wrote Lopez last January 31, informing the environment chief of Henry’s violations, but Lopez allegedly shrugged off the issues.

Lopez confirmed to Rappler that she did reach out to the DOE to award the project to EI, but only for the sake of the beneficiaries of the power plant in Zamboanga.

She added that EI fulfilled all the requirements, but the company had been waiting 10 months for a process that should have taken just 45 days.

“Ecoglobal wanted to do solar energy in Zamboanga [which] has been suffering from power outages. I really wanted the solar [project],” Lopez said in a text message.

But Tañada, in her complaint, alleged that EI had yet to pass all technical, legal, and financial requirements to the DOE – a claim that Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi rejected.

“The Ecoglobal application has undergone legal, technical, and financial evaluation and was found qualified based on its submitted documents,” Cusi said in a text message to reporters.

Paris trip

Contrary to Tañada’s claim, Lopez also said the Paris trip was not paid for by EI. She explained that the French government had committed to help fund a project for the Pasig River.

With that commitment, Lopez said they were able to get a France-based travel agency to arrange their trips, pending the payment that would come from the French funding.

“Ecoglobal just coordinated. The trip was a work trip, it wasn’t at all a perk. The travel agency gave the tickets in the assurance that when the funds come for the Pasig River which the French government has already committed to, they would get paid,” she said in March 2017.

Lopez added that she also wanted to ask the French government for help in establishing renewable energy models for the country’s islands.

“How can I ask for help if our systems are so slow? [President Rodrigo] Duterte also doesn’t like slow systems… So I decided to call [the DOE]… Also [Secretary Cusi] was scheduled to go on the trip – was invited… It would just make us look really bad if what is supposed to take 45 days takes 10 months!” she said.

“It’s really sad how the other camp is trying to do anything to put me down, even a trip done for the country. Very sad, ask them to stop it. Climb a mountain and go meditate,” added Lopez, who is abroad on a personal trip.

The first complaint filed against Lopez was in January this year over her alleged inaction on the environment department’s defective air monitoring equipment. The second was a graft complaint filed earlier this week by the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, which accused Lopez of violating due process in ordering the closure and suspension of mining operations.

In its dismissal of the 3rd complaint, the Ombudsman said there was not enough evidence to support the claim that the Paris trip was a gift in exchange of a project.

The Ombudsman gave merit to Lopez’ explanation that the trip was paid for, not by EI, but by state-owned French company Syndicat Interdepartmental pour l’Assainissement de l’Agglomeration Parissienne or SIAAP.

“Even if the principles laid down in other similar laws on the concept of unauthorized ‘gift-giving’ were to be applied, the act complained would still not qualify as a criminal violation,” said the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman explained that the Code of Conduct allows officials to accept foreign travels from foreign governments.

Lopez was also bypassed by the Commission on Appointments, but Malacañang had said she was expected to be reappointed. 

Lopez was eventually rejected by the Commission in May 2017. Retired army general Roy Cimatu replaced her as environment secretary.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.