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Critic: Binay relocation program overpriced but...

MANILA, Philippines – Lawyer Renato Bondal accused Vice President Jejomar Binay of overpricing a housing and relocation program in Makati by P1 billion ($23 million), but admitted that he does not yet have all the documents to explain how he arrived at the amount.

At the 18th Senate hearing into corruption allegations against Binay, Bondal discussed the alleged overpricing of two Makati projects when the Vice President was still mayor of the country's financial capital. One is the Makati Friendship Suites housing project in Barangay Cembo in Makati, and the other is the Makati Homeville relocation project in Calauan, Laguna.

A political rival of Binay, Bondal testified on Thursday, April 16, that the renovation of the Makati Friendship Suites was supposedly overpriced by P195 million ($4.39 million), based on data from the Langdon & Seah construction manual.

Papalitan lang ang tiles ng flooring at kisame. 'Di pa kasama ang furniture and appliances. Pintura, tiles at kisame lang ito,” Bondal said in response to questions of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.

(They just replaced the tiles of the flooring and the ceiling. This does not include the furniture and appliances. This is just the paint, the tiles, and the ceiling.)

Bondal explained that the Makati Friendship Suites was meant to provide housing to informal settlers and Makati fire victims. Yet instead of a housing project, the lawyer said that the Friendship Suites turned into a hotel while the informal settlers were relocated all the way to Calauan, Laguna, under the Makati Homeville Relocation Project.

Bondal told reporters that the Calauan project was also overpriced by P500 million ($11.26 million).

Asked by reporters how the figures of P195 million for the Friendship Suites and P500 million for the Calauan project added up to the P1 billion he mentioned in his opening statement, Bondal admitted that he has yet to secure documents on the Calauan project.

We visited the area and we saw that the roads are not wide, they are so narrow, along with the sidewalk. So I mean, we have a pretty good feeling there is [overpricing] in Calauan,” Bondal said after the hearing.

Pressed further how he arrived at the amount of P1 billion, Bondal said: “That can't be pinpointed with certainty because we are still asking for a subpoena for the Commission on Audit (COA) records and the Makati documents, but we have our own experts who can say with certainty there is overpricing.”

Trillanes though said that the Binays' hand in the alleged corruption was clear. He compared the figures for the Calauan project with the cost of the lavish estate in Rosario, Batangas, that the Binays supposedly own.

Trillanes said: “P400 million daw binili ang Hacienda Binay na 350 hectares. Dito sa Calauan, Laguna, 40 hectares, P1 billion, so talagang tubong lugaw ginawa ng mga Binay.”

(The Hacienda Binay with 350 hectares was supposedly bought for P400 million. Here in Calauan, Laguna, it's just 40 hectares but they earned P1 billion, so these Binays are really raking it in.)

Bondal said that, as in other buildings in Makati, the Binays resorted to the “chop-chop” modus operandi or dividing the project into phases to jack up the cost.

The alleged overpricing of the Friendship Suites and Calauan relocation are the latest topics in the 8-month investigation into corruption allegations against the Binays. The Vice President again skipped the probe, which he rejects as a “soap opera” meant to bring down his popularity, and undermine his 2016 presidential bid.

'You have land, you still ask for a house?'

It was Bondal who filed the first plunder complaint against Binay and his son, Makati Mayor Jejomar Erwin Binay Jr, before the Ombudsman over the allegedly overpriced Makati City Hall parking building.

In the hearing, Bondal and another Binay rival, former Makati Vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado, detailed how the Vice President allegedly used the Friendship Suites for “political mileage.”

Bondal said that instead of housing informal settlers in the property, Binay turned it into a hotel meant exclusively for the so-called sister cities of Makati.

During his term as Makati mayor for 21 years, Binay established many “sister city” ties, providing assistance to local government units with fewer resources. Analysts said that these ties boosted Binay's clout among local officials, especially for elections.

Bondal said: “Are there ordinary Makati residents who can check in [the Suites]? No. Even media is banned. It's just for Makati sister cities like Pangasinan, Samar, and Davao.”

Binay's critic even illustrated how many sister cities Makati has in comparison with other cities. He said Makati has 670 sister cities, a far cry from Quezon City with only 19, Manila with 40, and even New York City with 104.

As for the Calauan project, two Makati residents who were relocated to the area faced the Senate blue ribbon sub-committee.

Edison Rivera and Domingo Arcilla, who appeared in Bondal's video presentation, testified that Makati had them and other informal settlers relocated to Laguna, only to leave them battling for their own survival.

Bondal presented photos that showed shabby living conditions in Calauan, while Rivera and Arcilla said they do not even have water, power, food, and other basic services.

Rivera and Arcilla said the sentiment of relocated Makati residents was that Binay's “gaganda ang buhay” (life will improve) was a lie.

They quoted Binay, the housing czar, as saying, “Binigyan na kayo ng lupa, gusto niyo pa ng bahay?!” (You were already given land, and now you are still demanding housing?!)

Citing a Rappler article, Bondal also said that sex-for-food prostitution was prevalent in Calauan, and conditions are so dire that infants die of malnutrition. (READ: Failed relocation in 'Bayan ni Juan')

Committee chairman Senator Aquilino Pimentel III and Trillanes decided to conduct an ocular inspection of Calauan, and to invite its mayor to the Senate to verify the conditions of the Makati residents relocated there.

Pimentel said: “We are talking here of basic needs of people.”

'Figures out of thin air'

Pimentel said that he will study Trillanes' renewed proposal to invite the Vice President to the hearing, considering that his panel already asked the Vice President to appear several times but to no avail.

One of Binay's spokespersons, lawyer JV Bautista, watched the hearing, and quickly responded to the allegations.

Bautista told reporters that it is the Commission on Audit (COA), not Bondal, that should determine if the projects were indeed overpriced.

Attorney Bondal once again comes out with his own mathematical computations that he just plucks out of thin air,” Bautista said. “It's like his cake figures. Initially, he said the cakes for senior citizens cost P1,000 each. Then when the documents came out, he said the cakes were only P300. It's Bondal who is overpricing.”

Bautista also turned the tables on Mercado, saying that he owned the Twin Leaf contractor of the Homeville project. Mercado said he was open to having the Senate invite Twin Leaf to the probe.

Binay's spokesman could not respond to questions on why Makati informal settlers had to be relocated all the way to Laguna when they could have been moved to the Friendship Suites in the city.

“That's a matter of policy. I can't answer that. It's based on the political wisdom of the policymaker,” Bautista said.

The lawyer again cried persecution of the Binays.

“This is a question of discrimination. Why are Trillanes, [Alan] Cayetano and Pimentel just picking on Makati?” 

'Track record of lying'

In a statement, Joey Salgado, head of media affairs at the Office of the Vice President, said reminded the public of Bondal's "track record of lying or using unreliable data to make wild accusations against the Vice President."

"Mr Bondal is the same person who claimed Makati's birthday cakes were overpriced at P1,000. When this was discredited by official documents, he sheepishly admitted 'nanghula' lang siya (he was just making a guess)," Salgado said.

"He is the same person who pegged his claim of overpricing in the case of Makati City Hall Building 2 on National Statistics Office data. But the NSO had clarified that their data is not based on actual construction cost," he added. Rappler.com