POSTSCRIPT / May 13, 2003 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Piatco audit to open another can of worms

AUDIT BEFORE TALKS: The government and the builder of Naia-3 (Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport) are girding for out-of-court talks to resolve their differences. This is a shortcut that could lead to the early start of terminal operations.

But how can they talk if the builder, Piatco (the Philippine International Air Terminals Co. Inc), refuses to open its books to independent auditors? That is the first major hurdle in the upcoming negotiations.

The Supreme Court itself said in its recent decision voiding the Piatco contracts that the government must reimburse Piatco only for legal and reasonable expenses. That may be problematic, as investigations have shown that there had been questionable big expenses.

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THIRD PARTIES: Word is being awaited from Piatco if it would allow a full audit. If it demurs, will the government still agree to talk without first scrutinizing the books in detail? Another important question is: Who should conduct the audit?

Objective third parties who cannot be intimidated or bribed should be involved in the audit, considering that the Supreme Court no less gave intimations of things that happen in the dark corridors of power.

For a sort of devil’s advocate, we nominate former Secretary Gloria Tan Climaco. Her best recommendation is the barrage of attacks unleashed on her by Piatco partisans.

We understand their objecting to her involvement in the audit. She is obviously too sharp for comfort, having a reputation for being able to track down every peso, whether it went to building the terminal or greasing somebody’s palm.

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LIONGSON PAYMENTS: Having opened a can of worms (actually a drum, according to former SEC chairman Perfecto Yasay), we might as well go all the way and smoke out bribe money. Findings on illicit payments can be used in pressing criminal cases against persons involved.

With so much dirt that may be unearthed, the audit promises to evolve into a Chapter 2 in the Piatco controversy, the first chapter being the legal combat that culminated in the Supreme Court voiding the Piatco contracts.

A rich lode worth tracing is the series of dollar payments made to a mysterious Alfonso Liongson. He reportedly collected dollar fees running from $5.5 million to $10 million (figures keep changing) for doing liaison work for a Piatco official.

An audit will expose the details of the Liongson payments, including the real beneficiaries. This is one reason why an independent audit is imperative. To get to the dirty bottom of things, we strongly suggest, we repeat, tapping the likes of Tan Climaco.

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SHIFTING FIGURES: The figures being mentioned in media and in official papers keep changing, which is another reason for an audit.

The project itself started with a tag price of $350 million, but this was raised by Piatco to over $600 million, only to be reduced to $525 million days later as the Senate Blue-Ribbon inquiry went into full swing. Now, Piatco lawyer Frank Chavez says Piatco must be reimbursed $500 million.

The audit must also explain one intriguing issue: Piatco guaranteed payment to the government of P300 million per year over its franchise period. But it gave the government only P2 million last year.

The reason given was that there were expenses that had to be deducted. But wasn’t the annual payment a guaranteed amount? Were the deductions justified?

Among the expenses deducted were reportedly payments to the company of former DOTC Secretary Pantaleon Alvarez. How much was involved? Were they reasonable? And why were the payments to a private firm charged against what was due the government?

This question alone will explain why the audit must be insulated from government pressure and from persons known to wield unusual influence and power.

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WHY NOT MIA AGAIN?: Monino S. Tecson, a Filipino working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has an interesting suggestion on the Naia:

“The government should restore the name Manila International Airport to the Naia, and rename the old Terminal 1 (where Ninoy was murdered in 1983) as Ninoy Aquino Terminal. Then we can name Terminal 2 (now being used by Philippine Airlines) as Centennial Terminal. The third one (built by Piatco) can be named Millennium Terminal or Bagong Bayani Terminal or OFW Terminal, whatever they wish. I am more concerned with giving the one and only international airport (near Manila) its original name.”

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TACTICAL RETREAT: How long will senators go through the motions of public consultations on constitutional amendments and try appearing to be mindful of public opinion?

With public glare focusing on the committee on constitutional amendment headed by Sen. Edgardo Angara, the panel decided yesterday to delay endorsing the convening of Congress as a Constituent Assembly (ConAss) to rewrite the charter.

Many senators were reportedly worried about the objections of the Iglesia ni Cristo and the El Shaddai to the ConAss idea. They were also bothered by talk that a dozen senators were being “bribed” with automatic seats in the legislature proposed under a parliamentary setup.

But while senators were suddenly talking of public hearings and showing interest in a Constitutional Convention of elective delegates, we won’t be surprised if they swung back eventually to the ConAss route for the shift to a parliamentary system.

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VENETIAN RAILROAD: Still, if you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, as we do, that’s actually the ConAss train rushing at full speed toward you with Speaker Jose de Venecia in control. Run for your life!

It seems there’s no way the train can be stopped. Per timetable, within one month after convening for its next regular session in July, Congress would be constituted into a Constituent Assembly and immediately work on proposed amendments.

By December, the railroad company would have delivered its load of Christmas gift to the people: a draft Constitution for a parliamentary government to be run mostly by the “coalition of the willing” collaborators of the new system.

The May 2004 elections will push through since taking this away from a population used to directly electing its president might cause widespread unrest. But under the parliamentary setup, the president elected in 2004 will be mostly ceremonial.

With that, ConAss advocates think that everybody would be happy. The people still would be able to elect their president, while the parliamentarians led by De Venecia would be able to install the Prime Minister, the real Head of Government, who we imagine would look like the gentleman from Pangasinan.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 13, 2003)

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