Palace questions Czech envoy’s revived MRT allegations

Natashya Gutierrez

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Malacañang Palace gives assurances that allegations of corruption and the ongoing investigations will not affect improvements on the Metro Rail Transit (MRT)

INVESTIGATION. Malacañang urges Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtar to help investigators. File photo by AFP

MANILA, Philippines – Malacanang on Monday, April 7, questioned the motives of Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtar for reviving the alleged $30-million extortion attempt made by Philippine officials on a Czech company bidding for new Metro Rail Transit (MRT) coaches.

“It’s been a year. I don’t know why this issue is being revived by Ambassador Rychtar,” Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in a news briefing, when asked about the latest public statements made by the Rychtar on the issue.

In an interview with GMA News last week, Rychtar had tagged Metro Rail Transit (MRT) general manager Al Vitangcol III as the alleged “mastermind” of the extortion attempt and claimed that the official was being “protected.”

Asked about Rychtar’s latest pronouncement, Lacierda said he found the timing of the revived allegation “curious.”

“This thing has been there since last year. There was an investigation—both administrative and an investigation from the NBI—and suddenly there’s again a resurrection of all these….I have no idea what prompted Ambassador Rychtar to speak up again,” he said.

Help investigators

Lacierda urged Rychtar to participate in investigations being conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and other bodies on the matter. 

Citing the confidentiality of the NBI probe ordered by President Benigno Aquino III in July which is still ongoing, Lacierda said he is unsure if Rychtar has spoken to investigators. But he emphasized Rychtar’s refusal to cooperate with a separate administrative probe initiated by the DOTC.

“I can assure Ambassador Rychtar that there is an investigation in the NBI. And if he did cooperate, well and good; and if he did not, or if he hasn’t cooperated yet, we certainly encourage him to speak up before the proper body and not just the media,” he said.

Lacierda said that anyone with an allegation can present evidence to investigative bodies, for the case to prosper. 

“Until such time that you are prepared to present evidence, we cannot work on statements coming from media,” he said.

He added, “It’s certainly interesting, curious why he [turns to media] instead of [facing the probe] if it’s true that he has not presented any testimony before NBI. And let me say that that’s a qualification. We’d certainly be curious why he’s doing [it] that way and not helping the proper investigative bodies to do their jobs.”

Last year, Rychtar alleged that Czech company Inekon had been blacklisted by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) from the MRT-3 bidding after the company refused to give a $30-million bribe. He had also alleged that presidential sister Maria Elena “Ballsy” Cruz and her husband Eldon were behind the extortion attempt, an accusation he later recanted.

“Ambassador Rychtar himself already said that Ms Ballsy Cruz was never involved. Somebody is trying to put, insinuate something which is absent from the very beginning,” Lacierda said, responding to questions.

Inekon eventually lost the bid and the contract was granted to Chinese company Dalian Locomotive.

The P3.769-billion project involves the supply of 48 light rail vehicles (LRVs) to decongest the MRT-3, which carries 600,000 passengers a day. Its load limit is only 350,000 daily.

Improvements ongoing

The ambassador took back his claim the presidential sister asked for $30 million from Inekon and later said it was 3 DOTC undersecretaries – Jose Lotilla, Rene Limcaoco, and Catherine Gonzales – and Transportation Assistant Secretary Jaime Feliciano who tried to extort from the Czech firm.

Yet much later, the envoy said it was Vitangcol and some private individuals who tried to extort from Inekon. Vitangcol has gone on leave to give way to an investigation, but has submitted documents to clear his name.

Vitangcol and the DOTC officials were present at that day’s Senate probe on the MRT and the status of the projects, among others, and denied the Czech envoy’s allegations.

Rychtar had also claimed that the DOTC blacklisted Inekon after the incident, and that unnamed influential people were protecting Vitangcol. The DOTC and Malacañang have denied both claims.

Despite Rychtar’s changing versions and serious allegations however, Lacierda said Malacañang had no plans to declare him persona non grata.

He also gave assurances the issue would not affect improvements on the MRT, adding the DOTC is now in the process of adding 3 trains a month and is working on a process that allows fare payment off-site to avoid congestion in the train stations.

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.