Ups, downs in national life

The past few weeks have been eventful, with the usual ups and downs in our national life.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address on July 23 was overshadowed by the “coup” at the House of Representatives. Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez was ousted as Speaker and replaced by Rep. Gloria M. Arroyo. The maneuver delayed the President’s speech for more than hour and, most importantly, derailed passage of the bicameral version of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (formerly the Bangsamoro Basic Law) that day.
Observers, however, don’t see much difference between Alvarez and Arroyo. Both are with the PDP-Laban Party, both are stalwart Duterte supporters. The big difference is, Arroyo doesn’t believe in Alvarez’s proposed NO-EL or “no elections” scenario.
With the change in the House leadership, we must now look at its implications on Charter change toward federalism and whether this would catapult Arroyo to the prime ministership.

Ups: the good news
July 31 – The Palace assured that there will be no casinos in Boracay. This is contrary to the claim of Katrina Nepomuceno, vice president for legal affairs of Leisure and Resorts World Corp., the local partner of Macau-based Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd. May the plans for a casino in Boracay be truly buried.
July 26 – The Court of Appeals ruled that the immediate revocation of social news network Rappler’s license to publish was wrong. It remanded the Rappler case to the Securities and Exchange Commission for reinvestigation with a reminder to keep in mind the processes that should be followed, including letting Rappler fix the problem first.
There was initial confusion over the court’s 72-page decision, with a few in the mainstream media headlining that the CA had junked Rappler’s petition. Rappler president Maria Ressa would say later that some newsrooms based their report on only five pages of the decision that were leaked to them.
Ressa said the CA noted that the SEC had singled out a clause in the contract between Rappler and Omidyar Network, holder of Philippine Depository Receipts, to insist there was “some amount” of negative foreign control.
The PDRs had enabled Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm founded by e-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, to invest in Rappler.
Ressa said the CA considered it wrong of SEC to immediately revoke Rappler’s license, especially since Omidyar never exercised that “right” of negative control and showed “good faith” by waiving it then donating the PDRs to Rappler’s staff. The CA’s position is, yes, there seemed to be a violation, but the SEC should allow Rappler to fix it.
This is good news indeed for Rappler.
July 26 – The Commission on Elections sided with Vice President Leni Robredo, agreeing that the 25 percent shading threshold should be used in recounting the votes in the poll protest lodged by former Senator Bongbong Marcos.
In its comment before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), the Comelec said this guarantees that “votes are not wasted due to inadequate shading or that no accidental or unintended small marks are counted as votes.”
The 25 percent threshold was used in the 2016 election.
This is good news indeed, despite the fact that the government’s own counsel, Solicitor General Jose Calida, is pushing for the 50 percent threshold used in the 2010 election.

Downs: the bad news
July 29 – Television host Ben Tulfo announced that his television program will not return the P60 million payment for advertisement on his show “Bitag” on PTV-4. The ads were placed by the Department of Tourism, through his sister, then tourism secretary Wanda Teo. The obvious conflict of interest was pointed out by the Commission on Audit.
July 20 – The Commission on Audit recommended the filing of charges against officials of the Presidential Communications Operations Office over allegedly anomalous disbursements for the country’s hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in 2017. Of the P219.24 million ASEAN fund, 17.7 percent or P38.8 million in expenses were found questionable.
For example, information technology equipment was leased/rented for two to five months from various suppliers for P4,039,140. COA said outright purchases (Apple MacBook, Macbook Airs, Dell laptop, Lenovo, Apple Mac desktop, Sony camera and lenses, and others) would have cost only P3.074 million and the government could have saved P964,872 and owned the brand new equipment too.
Other anomalous disbursements included the purchase or rental of vehicles at a cost of P7 million split into several purchase contracts despite being procured at the same time and date. More ridiculous was the purchase of handmade soap at a hefty P758,000, which made people ask if the soap was made of gold?
July 12 – It seems our roving executives at Department of Tourism are costing us a lot not just on travel expenses, but also days missed at work. They may claim the need for travel as they promote the country as a travel destination. But do they really need to be away so often? And bring along non-marketing staff?
No wonder the COA has questioned the disbursements of DOT executives amounting to P2 billion, especially their “excessive and extravagant” travel.
The 2017 audit report came across cash advances for foreign travel of 94 officers and employees of the DOT central office. Among them was Teo who went to Germany, Thailand, Turkey, Singapore and South Korea with a total daily subsistence allowance of P863,959.
Likewise, the COA report revealed that then Tourism Promotions Board chief operating officer Cesar Montano spent P2.276 million for himself when he traveled 14 times to Asia, Europe, Australia and North America in 2017 (91 days total, or almost 25 percent of the year). Montano also brought along his two assistants on 11 of his 14 trips. Costly and unnecessary.
Moreover, the officer-in-charge, a deputy for International Promotions, incurred P1.957 million for 16 trips to Asia, Europe, Australia and North America.
Worst, COA also noted that TPB sent non-related personnel to travel to foreign tourism events.
The COA has also ordered Montano and his two assistants to refund P66,620 paid for their tickets to attend the Philippine Business Mission to Japan, which they never attended.
Montano resigned in May following the controversy over the P80-million Buhay Carinderia project, which the TPB had paid for in full even when the project was only 15 percent complete.
Sad, indeed. Every pronouncement from President Duterte includes his fight against corruption. But again and again, we get news of unforgivable extravagance and wastage by public servants, including those he appointed to office.
Taxpayer’s money spent unnecessarily and wasted hurts the public purse. The money could have gone to better health care, food or school tuition for many poor families, especially those orphaned due to extrajudicial killings.
Meanwhile, this begs the question: What disciplinary actions will be taken against government officials who misuse public funds on such large scale?

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