Thursday, February 17, 2005

Can of worms No. 3

Can of worms No. 3

Posted 00:14am (Mla time) Feb 17, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the February 17, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

TOURISM Secretary Robert Ace Durano blabbed earlier that retired Air Force Gen. Adelberto Yap would oversee the country's second largest international airport. "He'll find," this column warned last Oct. 14, "a can of management worms waiting."

At the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority, the Commission on Audit reported that the "worms" included P1.41 billion in properties unlisted, P90.2 million in debts and reduced fees for coddled firms like Philippine Airlines and Waterfront for over a decade.

"Can of Worms 2, 3, 4, 5 Etc." debunked acting MCIAA manager Marcelino Cordova's claim that reforms were implemented. Garbled books and reform lags led the COA to exclude the airport and 13 other offices from its review of national agencies.

Instead, the airport cheekily urged the Inquirer to prod the Bureau of Internal Revenue to rule if PAL is tax exempt.

"It's not a newspaper's job to wring decisions on airport taxes," we wrote then. The board's "refusal to do so, for over a decade, constitutes gross dereliction of duty. Others were cashiered for less."

Future cans of worms are in contracts, from the supply of X-ray machines to fire trucks. "Can of Worms No. 3," we said, "is an Ombudsman case over a partial P7.9 million runway, rejuvenation."

An "independent board" will name Yap manager tomorrow (Feb. 18), Sun-Star's Elias Baquero reports. The members of the board apparently have seen the letter stating: "It is the President's wish...."

No one will admit glimpsing a wink from the financiers of the 2004 presidential campaign. They're now recouping their donations from airport contracts. So, will Yap play ball with them?

Yap will find "Can of Worms No. 3" waiting. The no-nonsense Regional Ombudsman Virginia Palanca Santiago approved the filing of a criminal case for graft against the airport's former manager Angelo Verdan and engineer William Sabado.

While the board shilly-shallied, one member, Capt. Antonio Oppus, charged Verdan and Sabado for awarding 7HTechnochem Industries P7,470,476 in a rigged transaction to buy 14,534 gallons of sub-standard "rejuvenator."

Since then, the COA's Roy Ursal confirmed Oppus' assertion that Verdan excluded the awards and bids committee and instead ran a personal canvass. The MCIAA couldn't be bothered to reply to the COA.

Technochem's bid surfaced three months late and it was overpriced by P6 million, Ombudsman prober Ephemia Bacalso found. To favor a family corporation headed by Ronnie S. Tiu, the "project specifics" were watered-down three times. Except for Oppus, the board played along.

It did so again by swallowing retailored specifications, this time for a fire truck. Doctored "specs" enabled the MCIAA to buy a P32-million Oskosh fire truck last May.

There's "enough basis to proceed with a criminal investigation" on the fire-engine award, wrote Ombudsman's Edgardo Canton. The Ombudsman's can opener will see courts rule on questions that Oppus raised.

Like Yap, Oppus is a military fighter pilot. He moved on to fly 747s and is also an engineer. He serves on a board staffed with members of varying qualifications, from lawyers to a movie house operator, insurance peddler and political retreads.

The board minutes show where Oppus drew the line. "Effective immediately, I am inhibiting myself from any and all discussions regarding runway repair," he wrote the board chair, Undersecretary Edward Pangunsan, on July 1, 2003. "The whole episode is chaotic and graft ridden." Pangunsan didn't reply either.

That wasn't an overnight rejection. In August 2000, Japan Airport Consultants warned about "moderate to severe unraveling" of the runway. But for 21 months, the board sat on its hands-until the May 2002 meeting, when Oppus bluntly charged "gross incompetence for neglecting an airport's critical and primary facility: its runway."

From then on, a charade developed. Bids by reputable firms were shoved aside on the basis of an "unsigned white paper." In the interim, vital documents never showed up from response of shunted bidders, the memorandum of agreement between the airport and the Air Transport Office for repairs, the progress and evaluation reports to Technochem Industries' backdoor appearance, three months after the bidding closed.

The eroded runway drew complaints. "Our technical evaluation confirmed that (Mactan) is in an advanced state of deterioration," PAL's flight operations chief wrote in May 2002. A series of accidents since then underscored the warning. A PAL 737's tire exploded upon touchdown in August 2002. A Cebu Pacific DC-9's tires were ripped during a September 2003 landing. In February 2004, a Qatar jet had its tires zapped.

How good are the repairs? The over 2.27 million passengers, who stream through Mactan yearly, have no idea. Neither does the board. The acceptance document, sans technical report, for runway repair surfaced 62 days late. A disinterested board wasn't bothered that only "ocular inspections" preceded submission. "The roughness of the runway is dangerous to aircraft landings," says Capt. Amado Soliman, president of Air Safety Philippines.

"Can of Worms Nos. 3 and 4 " are case studies, too. They show how an inept board, subservient to shadowy political and economic groups, toy with lives of people by converting a crucial airport into a jar, as the Filipino saying puts it, "to make kupit." That's a polite word for snitching in the millions.

When Yap assumes office before distinguished board members, no one will ask: Are your fingerprints, as former board member, also in the MCIAA deals?

As the old Spanish farmer said: "They're all honest men. But my cloak is not to be found."


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