Iloilo building probe: Will Senate go easy on Drilon?

Carmela Fonbuena
The Senate blue ribbon committee begins its probe into the alleged overpriced Iloilo Convention Center, the Senate President's pet project which was built by the same contractor for the Makati City Hall Building 2
'I WELCOME THE INVESTIGATION.' A file photo of Senate President Franklin Drilon

MANILA, Philippines – In a televised speech on September 18, Vice President Jejomar Binay named the Iloilo Convention Center (ICC) as one of 6 government infrastructure projects that would supposedly prove that the controversial Makati City Hall II Parking Building was not overpriced.

The Makati City Hall Building 2 cost P69,549.00 per square meter. He said it was just a little more expensive than the ICC, which cost P68,140.00 per square meter. 

Why compare the two buildings? Hilmarc’s Construction Corporation is the winning bidder in both infrastructure projects. The Binay camp, which has accused the administration’s Liberal Party to be behind the Senate probe of Binay, has been challenging the LP-led Senate to also scrutinize the building tagged as the “pet project” of Senate President Franklin Drilon.

Two months later, it happens. The Senate Blue Ribbon committee on begins on Thursday, November 13, its probe into the infrastructure project partly funded by the Senate President’s pork barrel as well Malacañang’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that the Supreme Court had declared partly unconstitutional.

Drilon has said he only provided the funds and had nothing to do with the implementation of the project.

Unfazed, he declared he is attending Thursday’s hearing but would forego his right as Blue Ribbon committee member to grill the resource speakers – including his accuser. He will, however, make himself available for any questions raised by the senators, he said.

But will the senators grill the Senate President? And will they grill the Hilmarc’s officials the way a few senators on the blue ribbon subcommittee grilled them during the hearings on the Makati building? Will the Senate opposition take advantage of the opportunity to get back at colleagues from the administration?

Blue ribbon committee chairman Senator Teofisto Guingona III – Drilon’s party mate in the Liberal Party – promised that party affiliations will not get in the way. 

Drilon’s foe wants to be invited

Drilon’s accuser and former aide, former Iloilo provincial administrator Manuel Mejorada, is attending the hearing. Mejorada, who has a reputation for filing cases against politicians in Iloilo, claimed that the P679.8- million ($15.20 million*) Iloilo Convention Center was overpriced. 

ILOILO CONVENTION CENTER. Artist’s rendition from the Hilmarc's Construction Corporation Facebook page

Drilon’s other political foe in Iloilo, former Iloilo Representative Augusto Syjuco Jr, has signified his intention to be at the hearing as well. Syjuco, now a member of Vice President Binay’s United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), has written senators, seeking to be invited as a resource speaker. 

Syjuco wrote: “Through the use of his position, Drilon brings home government funds, announces these to all and sundry, to get the public credit and adulation, and identifies the projects. He then delegates these funds to be used by whichever Local Government Units (LGUs) or Executive Departments or Agencies for purposes Drilon has directed.”

But will the committee allow him to join the hearings? 

Among the senators, those who have signified their intent to join the hearings are all members of the administration coalition: Juan Edgardo Angara, Aquilino Pimentel III, and Benigno Aquino IV. 

“It doesn’t matter [that they are members of Team PNoy]. What matters is the process is done in a transparent manner. We will not hide anything. We should treat everybody fairly,” Guingona said in an earlier interview.

Guest list

Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson will begin with a presentation, Guingona announced.  A local Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) office earlier contested the cost estimates of the ICC cited by Binay in his September speech. 

“Since it’s a DPWH project and the first issue is overpricing, I think it’s proper that Secretary Singson makes the presentation and he signified that he is willing to do so,” Guingona said.

Aside from Singson, the following are appearing before the Senate panel on November 13:

  • Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr
  • Former Iloilo Provincial Administrator Manuel Mejorada
  • Hilmarc’s Construction Corporation president Robert Henson
  • Hilmarc’s Construction Corporation chairman of the board Efren Canlas
  • Government Procurement Policy Board executive director Dennis Santiago
  • Commission on Audit Commissioner Jose Fabia
  • Commission on Audit technical service officer Rodulfo Ariesga
  • Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority official Guiller Asido

UNA’s handiwork?

In as much as the Binay camp had accused the ruling LP to be behind the Senate probe into the Makati building to destroy Binay’s chances in 2016, the LP is also accusing the Binay camp of masterminding the allegations against Drilon. 

“The relationship between Mejorada and UNA is not a secret to Ilonggos. Mejorada became affiliated with that UNA candidate after falling out with the Liberal Party and its leaders, including his former boss Senate President Drilon. Their link is undeniable,” claimed LP member Caloocan Representative Edgar Erice.

Drilon is also a respondent in complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman, where Mejorada filed criminal and administrative raps against him and other government officials.

Mejorada said Drilon and the others are criminally liable for plunder, malversation of public funds, graft, and violation of the Government Procurement Reform Act. He said they’re also administratively liable for dishonesty and grave misconduct. 

Singson, Jimenez, and Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) chief Mark Lapid were named as Drilon’s co-respondents in the case before the Ombudsman. – Rappler.com