Controversial choppers: Air Force offers demo flights
MANILA, Philippines – Defense officials and Air Force officers dragged into the controversial chopper deal conducted a special briefing in Camp Aguinaldo on Tuesday, July 14, to debunk alleged corruption in the P1.2-billion deal (about $26 million).
Philippine Air Force chief of staff Major General Galileo Gerard Kintanar gave assurances that the refurbished choppers are "reliable" and "mission-capable" in spite of engine troubles earlier reported.
They also flew members of the media from Camp Aguinaldo to nearby Rizal province aboard the controversial UH-1D and, alternately, the UH-1H, which is the dominant unit in the military's chopper fleet.
"We can conclude that UH-1D is on par in terms of performance if not much better than the UH-1H," said Colonel Moises Micor of the 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who was accused of asking for a 7% kickback from the deal, said the briefing and the demonstration flights were meant to "clarify the issues coming out in the media, which we couldn't explain so well so we thought we'd just show you." Gazmin denied the bribery allegations.
The German-made Dornier UH-1D choppers is at the center of an investigation of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee over two issues.
First, the big-ticket project was supposedly tailor-made for a particular suppler – the US-based Rice Aircraft Services Incorporated (RASI) – in exchange for kickbacks.
RASI president Robert Rice confirmed that the whistleblower Rhodora Alvarez asked for a 15% cut from the deal but said they rejected it.
Second, the reliability of the refurbished choppers was questioned when Senator JV Ejercito showed a report coming from the Air Force that 4 out of the 7 choppers had experienced engine troubles ranging from leaks to "cannot start" just a few months after delivery. The engines have since been repaired or replaced.
The project was supposed to supply 21 refurbished choppers for the Philippine Air Force, but the Department of National Defense (DND) department partially terminated the contract. RASI appealed it.
The briefing marked the first time that security officials formally responded to the allegations made by Alvarez, an agent-turned-whistleblower. The activity preempted their expected testimonies in the Senate.
The Senate probe has so far provided a venue for Alvarez to present his affidavit and the chopper suppliers to counter her claims.
Aside from Gazmin's alleged 7% kickback, Alvarez said another 5% was also supposed to go to Defense Undersecretary for Finance Fernando Manalo, and 3% was supposed to go to her.
"Lies lahat yun e (They're all lies)," said Gazmin on Tuesday. "Dapat i-substantiate niya yung kaniyang allegations. Wala naman e. Narinig na ninyo 'yung sinasabi ni Rice na siya ang humihingi. Binabaliktad niya yung issue," he added. (They're all lies. She should substantiate her allegations. There's none. You've heard Rice say that she's the one who's asking [for commission]. She's muddling the issue.)
Senator Francis Escudero earlier questioned why RASI still won the negotiated bid when it already failed in 3 previous competitive biddings.
"Hindi naman bawal yun sa batas, e (It's not disallowed in the law)," Gazmin explained.
"Wala nama sa batas na na-disqualify ka sa isang bidding na hindi ka puwedeng pumasok sa isang bidding kasi nag-join sila e. 'Yung mga disqualifications nila, documentary requirements lang yung iba. Hindi naman technical," Gazmin added.
(There's nothing in the law that says that if you're already disqualified in one bidding, you are no longer allowed to join another bidding. Besides, they were disqualified because of documentary requirements only. It wasn't [on the basis of] technical [specifications].)
Engine troubles minor?
DND Technical Inspection and Acceptance Committee chairman Colonel Dino Diño said all 7 choppers were in good condition during the inspection period.
He dismissed the engine troubles, such as leaks, "normal," "minor," and covered by the warranty period.
In the case where the engine was replaced, Diño said it's possible that a spare part was not immediately available so they opted to change the engine altogether.
The DND is conduting its own investigation on the controversy. It is headed by Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino. – Rappler.com