Senate of the Philippines

What’s the controversy over the P23-B new Senate building all about?

Bonz Magsambol

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What’s the controversy over the P23-B new Senate building all about?
The pricey Senate building did not only raise the eyebrows of Senate President Chiz Escudero, it also caught the attention of the public

Barely a month into his leadership, Senate President Francis “Chiz” Escudero said he was shocked after finding out that the upper chamber’s new home in Fort Bonifacio in Taguig will cost the government P23 billion to complete.

“Nung nakita ko ito, medyo nagulantang ako at hindi ko inasahan na ganun kalaki aabutin ang gagastusin para sa ating magiging bagong tahanan,” Escudero said on Monday, June 10. This prompted Escudero to halt the construction as he ordered a “comprehensive review.”

(When I saw this, I was somehow startled and I didn’t expect that it would be that expensive to build our new home.)

The newly-installed Senate president learned about the costly construction of the building from Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who assumed the chairmanship of the committee on accounts after Senator Nancy Binay relinquished the post due to changes in leadership at the chamber last May. (READ: Zubiri is out; Escudero is new Senate president)

The committee on accounts is in charge of the Senate’s budget, expenses, audit, and other fiscal activities.

The Senate has been paying rent to the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) for use of its current building. It has also been leasing property of the Social Security System (SSS) for its parking lot since 1996. In 2009, the late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago flagged the costly rent of P7.8 million per month for the building and another P500,000 for the parking lot.

Proposals to transfer the Senate were first made under the leadership of then-Senate president Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. over two decades ago.

What’s the controversy over the P23-B new Senate building all about?

The pricey Senate building did not only raise Escudero’s eyebrows, it also got the attention of the public.

On June 7, Cayetano wrote a letter to Escudero about his findings on the ongoing construction. He said that it was his job to have an audit of accounts “chargeable against funds of the Senate.”

Cayetano flagged the “dramatic increase in the project’s budget from an initial P8.9 billion to a projected P23.3 billion.” That’s almost three-fold the original budget. His report also emphasized problems pertaining to procurement delays and missteps by the project manager, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which have “contributed to project slowdowns and cost overruns.”

Cayetano also flagged “variations, deviations, and modifications made to the project in various stages,” which amounted to P833 million.

“We will have to clarify with all parties concerned the reasons and justifications for these variation orders that incidentally have caused extension of time claims by the contractor. Understanding that this is a design and build project, it is unclear at this point why there are so much variations allowed by DPWH, the project management team,” Cayetano said.

The construction began under the leadership of former Senate president Tito Sotto. Former senator Ping Lacson was chair of the committee on accounts at that time before it was transferred to Senator Nancy Binay.

The contract was awarded to Hilmarc’s Construction Corporation by the DPWH, which is the implementing agency of the project. Hilmarc’s is the same company that was embroiled in the overpriced P2.3-billion Makati City Hall Building II way back in 2014. (READ: Binay’s Makati building overshoots approved budget) The project was initiated in 2007 under then-mayor Jejomar Binay and was completed in 2012 under his son, Jejomar Erwin “Junjun” Binay Jr., who became mayor in 2010.

In an October 2023 document obtained by Rappler, the construction of the new Senate building is supposed to have three phases. The initial budget of P8.9 billion was only for the “core and shelf” of the building, as what Nancy Binay also pointed out. But a P4.1 billion additional cost had already been incurred.

  • Phase I: P8.9 billion – core and shell
  • Phase II: P2.5 billion – fit out package including furnishings and tiles
  • Phase III: P10.33 billion (yet to be obligated) – “works to complete”

The grand total indicated in the document was only P21.73 billion, not P23 billion. Rappler reached out to Binay’s office for clarification and we will update this story once she replies.

According to a GMA News report, phase 1 of the construction is already 77% done, while phase 2 is 18% completed. The DPWH targets to finish both phases by July 2025. Going by this timeline, however, it’s impossible for the Senate to transfer to the new building by January 2025 as projected, as phase 2 is not even halfway done.

While Escudero has ordered a suspension of the construction, the DPWH is not yet halting construction. “Kapag naka-receive na po kami ng letter kay Senator Cayetano mag-stop ng work, mag-stop na po kami (When we receive a letter from Senator Cayetano that we should stop working, then we will stop),” said DPWH project director Soledad Florencio, as quoted in the GMA News report.

On Facebook Live on Wednesday, June 12, Cayetano said that the suspension was really not for phases 1 and 2, but for phase 3.  

“At this point we are reviewing phase 1 and phase 2 while it is ongoing and it is the additional P10 billion that we are reviewing now, and we will get people with expertise to help us here,” he said.

No politics, just work

Cayetano also said politics had nothing to do with flagging the ongoing construction of the new Senate building. He said that his findings were backed by documents.

“So hindi po to bulong-bulong or haka-haka lahat po. Ito ay official, mga reports, mga documents, no. But voluminous po napakarami kaya we’re getting through,” he said, alluding to Binay. (It’s not based on hearsay or just allegations, these are all from official reports and documents. But these are voluminous documents we’re getting through.)

Earlier on Monday, Binay said that she was ready to explain the costing of the new Senate building to Escudero in case the latter asks.

“If there are questions and some clarifications, or things that need to be verified or validated, or to check if some information are indeed factual or simply intended to sow misinformation and spread falsehoods – I am just a call or text away,” Binay said.

“Kung sana ay nakapag-usap kami ni SP (Senate President), mas malinaw at factual info ang maibibigay ko, kaysa umasa s’ya sa mga marites at mga bubuyog na bumubulong-bulong,” she added.

(If only SP and I had talked, I would have been able to provide him with clearer and more factual information, instead of him just relying on gossipmongers and bees buzzing around him.)

It can be recalled that it was also Cayetano who led the year-long probe against the Binay family in Makati infrastructure projects, including the overpriced Makati building. The dispute between the Binays and the Cayetanos was compounded when Taguig won jurisdiction over 10 “embo” barangays that were previously under Makati.

Makati Mayor Abby Binay, whose term ends in 2025, expressed a desire to seek the Taguig mayorship in the same year. Because Taguig is the bailiwick of the Cayetanos, 2025 can be expected to ignite very colorful and intense fireworks. – Rappler.com

1 comment

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  1. ET

    Another act that makes the Philippine Political Circus more exciting and intriguing.

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.