I.T. contract mess has serious implications for Sereno – Umali

Lian Buan

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I.T. contract mess has serious implications for Sereno – Umali
Justice committee chairperson Reynaldo Umali says testimonies 'point to the Chief Justice as the source of all these illegalities' related to the hiring of IT consultant Helen Macasaet

MANILA, Philippines – House justice committee chairman Reynaldo Umali is going to drill on the P10-million contract that the Supreme Court (SC) awarded to an Information Technology (IT) consultant, saying it is more serious than he initially thought.

“This is a brewing issue, ‘kala ko wala lang ito (I thought this was just nothing), but it is evolving, something which is also directly affecting the decisions of the Chief Justice and showing some kind of a pattern here,” Umali, who is also Oriental Mindoro 2nd district representative, said on Tuesday, January 23.

As the committee continued its hearing on the impeachment complaint against Sereno, SC officials as high up as Deputy Court Administrator Raul Villanueva were made to answer questions on the supposed irregularity in the hiring of IT consultant Helen Macasaet. (READ: Bidding issues hound Sereno in impeachment hearing)

Macasaet earned P10 million – more than the earlier reported P9 million – for renewed contracts, which lasted 3 years, from 2013 to 2016.

Villanueva, who is also the chairman of the SC’s bids and awards committee (BAC), repeated what the procurement head had already told the House panel before: it was the Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ) which primarily handled the hiring.

On Tuesday, Villanueva said that, apart from the OCJ, the SC’s Management and Information Systems Office (MISO) handled the hiring too.

The initial hiring went through what is called an alternative mode of procurement under negotiated procurements, allowed by the Government Procurement Law as long as it meets the requirement. Macasaet was classified as a highly-technical consultant, which was one of the requirements.

Both the OCJ and MISO were not represented during the hearing on Tuesday. 

Umali said officials from both offices should be ready when they face the panel next.

“Because we will ask them many questions, I hope they will not give us the petty excuse that they forgot. We’re giving them a fair warning to study this,” Umali said.

A source from within the judiciary familiar with the issue said the IT contract anomaly is indeed a “very serious” issue which goes beyond the question of impeachment.

Salary, renewal

Macasaet’s first contract was worth P100,000 a month. That eventually became P250,000 a month.

Procurement head Maria Carina Cunanan said her unit had nothing to do with the increase.

“I simply endorsed to the bids and awards committee the terms of reference, which was prepared by the MISO and OCJ, so legally the procurement planning committee doesn’t have any discretion with regard to what is included in the terms of reference,” Cunanan said.

Cunanan said she gave “deference” to the discretion exercised by MISO and OCJ, while Villanueva said BAC does not have the responsibility to determine “the propriety” of the salary.

Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwen Garcia said the initial negotiated procurement can be above board, but she pointed out that the subsequent renewals of contracts should have undergone public bidding. 

Section 54.1 of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the Government Procurement Law prohibits “splitting of government contracts.”

Villanueva said that only the procuring entity, the OCJ, handled the renewals. Villanueva said BAC was responsible only for the first contract. 

But another SC official disputed him.

“With due respect to DCA Villanueva, I think all alternative modes of procurement should pass through the corresponding BAC,” said Regina Adoracion Filomena Ignacio, another member of the SC’s BAC.

Other officials who were asked had differing opinions, but the lawmakers already had what they needed to establish their point that something was amiss with the hiring of Macasaet.

Macasaet did not attend the hearing, as the invitation was sent to an old address. (READ: Sereno impeachment: Cracks in the Supreme Court)

Damning report

During the hearing, Sereno’s spokesperson Jojo Lacanilao sent out a statement, saying that it was “the Supreme Court, not the Chief Justice,” which hired Macaset.

Lacanilao also said that “the engagement of Macasaet was done in accordance with Republic Act Number 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Law and that her compensation was reasonable and not excessive.”

This is very different from the findings of the SC’s Office of the Chief Attorney, a damning report read out by Umali during the hearing.

Signed by Ignacio, the report said: “The procedural requirements of the Government Procurement Act and its revised IRR were not faithfully observed in procuring the services of Macasaet as a highly technical individual under the alternative mode of negotiated procurement.”

The report said it violated the procurement rules on fixed-price consultancy contracts as well as government audit codes.

It also said Macasaet’s compensation exceeded the ceiling imposed by the budget department, and that, when Macasaet was hired, there was no sufficient data, such as market value, that supported the “reasonableness” of the salary given her.

The report recommended to void Macasaet’s contracts, and for her to refund the difference of the compensation she received and the “reasonable compensation” that should be re-determined by SC.

Macasaet’s hiring is already the subject of an administrative case pending before the SC en banc.

It’s not clear how Umali got his hands on the copy of the report since SC has a policy of keeping confidential documents that are still pending resolution.

The parts of the report quoted by Umali does not mention Sereno, and the officials never explicitly pinned down the Chief Justice, but still Umali took it to mean the same.

“What is important in the revelations of today’s hearing is that these resource persons pointed to the Chief Justice as the source of all these illegalities or these illegal transactions that are now being declared to be void,” Umali said. Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.