Plunder in 'mashed potato' Palawan roads?

MANILA, Philippines – How much, do you think, does the construction of a road that looks like “mashed potato” cost?

A total of P20 million, if we will go by the documents showing how a special fund released to then Palawan Rep Abraham Kahlil Mitra (2nd district) was spent.

If this is not enough of an overpricing for what's practically a dirt road, there were 21 of these roads, according to state auditors. This means that more than 80% of the P520-M Malampaya fund that Mitra received in 2008 were spent questionably.

This prompted a Palawan-based people's organization to call for plunder charges to be filed against Mitra, who is now governor of the province and an ally of President Benigno Aquino III in the Liberal Party. (Watch more in the video below.)

However, the Commission on Audit (COA), in a recent report, only recommended the filing of administrative charges and unspecified criminal cases against mostly engineers of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) district office. No local official has been recommended for prosecution.

Kilusan Love Malampaya (KLM), which presented the COA findings in a press briefing on Tuesday, October 23, said COA's recommendations were insufficient.

The COA report cited only the lack of invitation for bidding for the projects and deficiencies in the quality of materials and finished projects, among others. But KLM partner Michaella Ortega said, “We have documents that were not included in the COA report,” and which could point to alleged overpricing.

KLM also presented documents and photos to show classrooms that Mitra's Malampaya fund allegedly built at P1 million each. There were 100 of these classrooms, the organization said.

Ortega said the parties involved – like Mitra and former Gov Joel Reyes – should be made liable for plunder.

'Pag tiningnan mo 'yung kalsada, mukhang mashed potato,” the young Ortega noted. (If you look at the roads, they look like mashed potatoes.)

IN PURING-BULILUYAN. A road that costs P20-M.

Photo courtesy of Bishop Pedro Arigo

The KLM partner is the daughter of the late broadcaster Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega, who was killed in 2010 allegedly due to his radio commentaries on how Reyes, his brother, and Mitra had misused the local governments' share in the Malampaya funds. She now chairs the Justice for Doc Gerry Ortega Movement.

Hunted by the Interpol, Reyes and his brother, former Coron mayor Mario Reyes are now fugitives and evading arrest for allegedly masterminding Ortega's killing.

The Malampaya natural gas production off the island-province of Palawan, which started in 2001, was initially seen to earn up to US$10 billion in two decades. While the Constitution and the Local Government Code are clear that 40% of the proceeds should be released by the national government to the host local governments, Malacañang under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo withheld it.

In a case that reached the Supreme Court, the Palace argued that the site of the operations is not within the municipal waters of Palawan, and therefore national territory, so the LGUs are not entitled to a share in the proceeds.

Pending the resolution of the case, Reyes and other local officials entered into an interim agreement with the Palace so that even a small percentage of their share would be released to them as "special assistance."

The KLM questioned that interim agreement before the SC. The agreement expired in 2010. Mitra, newly elected governor by then, was reported to have asked President Aquino to consider another interim agreement.

Mitra has denied involvement in any anomaly. “Ang pondo po ay na-implement po ng Department of Public Works and Highways. At kung ano man 'yung pamamaraan at findings ng COA, I think dapat pong masagot 'yan at dapat ma-correct,” Mitra said in an interview aired on ABS-CBN on Monday evening, October 22.

'Unexplained' costs

Ortega, however, is adamant the case is more anomalous than it seems.

LINAO BRIDGE. A P20-M bridge in Culandanum-Panalingaan crossroad.

Photo courtesy of Bishop Pedro Arigo

CULANDANUM-PANALINGAN CROSS ROAD. Improvement project worth P20-M.

Photo courtesy of Bishop Pedro Arigo

“It's not just an administrative oversight. Ang paniniwala natin diyan ay talagang merong ibinulsa. Talagang merong nawawala. Meron talagang unexplained,” Ortega told Rappler. (We believe that money was actually stolen. Money was gone. There was something unexplained.)

One “anomaly,” according to Ortega, is the lack of project documents that contain the breakdown of costs. She said available documents only state that each road costs P20 million, without details like materials to be used and the project's extent.

The KLM, through Ortega, thus urged the Ombudsman to bring to court the parties involved – over the recent report and, especially, a previous report that covers 1999 to 2003. “We're asking the Ombudsman to file those cases already. That has been a long time ago,” she said.

She added the COA should reinvestigate the projects given additional documents that did not make it to the recent audit.

She also urged the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate the Malampaya funds, which she noted is a bigger case than the P366-M plunder suit filed against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and others.

CAMPUNG ULAY. Some of the classrooms constructed using Malampaya funds.

Photo courtesy of Bishop Pedro Arigo

P1-M CLASSROOM. A people's organization is protesting the quality of structures built using the Malampaya fund.

Photo courtesy of Bishop Pedro Arigo

Arroyo, too

Lawyer Harry Roque, who has helped KLM in its advocacy, said Mrs Arroyo should be held liable, too. 

In 2007, Mrs Arroyo issued the executive order that authorized the release of half of the 40% disputed government share in the Malampaya project. In 2008, Roque and other parties questioned the constitutionality of Mrs Arroyo's order, saying it infringes on Congress' power of the purse. 

For Bishop Pedro Arigo, apostolic vicar of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the bottom line is the people affected by the alleged Malampaya fund misuse.

“"Kung nagamit lamang nang maayos itong perang ito – it's a big amount, P3.1 billion – eh 'di sana'y 'yung laging sinasabi ni President Noy, merong better life na na-e-enjoy ang ating mga kababayan,” Arigo explained. (If this money was used properly – it's a big amount, P3.1 billion – then our countrymen would experience a better life as President Noy would say.)

'LOVE MALAMPAYA.' Bishop Pedro Arigo holds a press conference with the Kilusan Love Malampaya at the CBCP office in Intramuros.

Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

Milyun-milyon ang kinuha, tapos wala man lang ma-explain,” Ortega added. “Tapos napakalantaran, napakagarapal, samantalang ang daming mga Palaweñong naghihirap.” (They got millions, yet they left everything unexplained... And it's so brazen, so shameless, while a lot of Palaweños wallow in poverty.)

Since 2010, COA had been conducting an audit of the Malampaya funds covering a full decade, but no report has been released yet. It wasn't clear during the KLM press conference if the COA report covering only the second district of Palawan was part of a longer report. – Rappler.com 

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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