POSTSCRIPT / June 7, 2005 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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DFA's leasing $10,000 NY apartment explained

FEEDING FRENZY: It seems to me that the critics of Consul General Cecille Rebong who are taking her to task for residing in a $10,000-a-month apartment in New York are barking up the wrong tree.

Some of her detractors who have had prior brushes with her are aware of this, and it intrigues me why they are waging a personal campaign to destroy her.

From the distant and distorted point of view of cash-strapped Manila, where the $10,000 monthly rent translates to some P550,000, Rebong is living in sinful luxury in the Trump Towers on First Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

The line goes: With P550,000, imagine how many hungry waifs in Payatas could be served hot meals, how many indigent patients could be snatched from the jaws of death, how many classrooms could be built, et cetera… while Rebong is throwing away precious dollars!

I hope I am wrong, but I see a hint of personal vendetta in the earlier attack on the Consul General. A few others, like sharks smelling fresh blood in the water, unwittingly got caught in the frenzy of the attack.

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CHASING INFO: ConGen Rebong or her runners, if any, have not talked to me. I have not had the privilege of meeting the Consul General. I do not even know how she looks.

But having covered the diplomatic beat in my younger days, my interest has been aroused by her case.

The past several days, I have asked informed sources on both sides of the Pacific about the Rebong case. Let me share with readers some of the information I gathered that may help shed light on the discussion.

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TOWNHOUSE: Aside from the Philippine Center on Fifth Avenue, which houses the offices of the Philippine mission to the United Nations and the Philippine consulate general, the Philippine government owns a townhouse on East 66th Street.

The townhouse’s first three floors are occupied by our Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the moment Ambassador Lauro L. Baja Jr. The upper three floors are reserved for the Consul General, but they have been in a state of disrepair.

As early as 1998, the Department of Foreign Affairs was planning to renovate the property, but the plan was approved only recently. When Rebong was assigned to New York in late 2003, she had no official residence and therefore had to look for a suitable place.

An obvious solution to the rent problem of the Consul General, whoever he or she may be, is to fast-track the repair of the townhouse.

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SUPER-EXPENSIVE: There are some posts — including New York, London and Tokyo — that are super expensive.

In such a post, the chief of mission’s allowance for the entire year could be used up in one throw in the June 12 National Day reception. Now and then, he or she also has to spend for visiting dignitaries from Manila who think that dollars grow on trees.

So serious is the money problem that when political ambassadors are appointed to these plum posts, one criterion is that they be independently rich. They should be able to live and let live in a style befitting their stature and the image being projected of the country.

Even junior diplomats assigned to New York grumble that they have a hard time making ends meet. While most of their ASEAN colleagues stay in the Manhattan area, most Pinoy envoys have to look for apartments in Queens or in nearby Jersey City.

You see, a modest Manhattan studio apartment could have a rent tag of $2,000 a month. (We can almost hear the frogs in Manila croaking “Gad, that’s P110,000!”)

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OFFICIAL, NOT PERSONAL: The two-bedroom Trump apartment rented by the government for the Consul General is an official residence, not her private quarters.

As the ConGen hosts receptions, meetings and other functions in the premises, with dignitaries invariably on the guest list, the residence becomes a showcase for the country she represents.

But Rebong is expected to move to the East 66th townhouse once the renovation of the fourth to sixth floors is completed. Her moving out before the Trump lease contract expires could be a problem if there was no provision for premature departure.

The official line is that Trump was chosen from among several properties because it was comparatively less expensive and was one of a few buildings that accepted diplomats and allowed the insertion of a diplomatic clause in the lease contract.

This clause would ensure that the Philippine government would not be penalized should the Consul General transfer to the 66th Street townhouse before the end of the contract.

The Trump address was also considered convenient, because official residences of chiefs of mission have to be situated as close to the embassy or consulate as possible for obvious reasons.

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DFA APPROVAL: Check out, and you will discover that New York is next to London and Oslo in the list of most expensive cities in the world. (Manila is not on the list.)

London is the most expensive city on account of its high cost of renting accommodation. In terms of living costs, Oslo remains the most expensive of the 71 cities surveyed, followed by Copenhagen, Tokyo, Zurich and London.

It may not be fair comparing the rent or living expenses of diplomats in various capitals. For example, the $5,000 that an ambassador might pay for a mansion in a Southeast Asian city would not be enough to pay for a similar house in Japan or the US.

As has been the practice, Rebong had to seek home office approval of the $10,000 monthly rent. The rate is within range of what consuls-general before her paid for their official residences in Manhattan since the mid-1990s.

Her request for authority was approved by then Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Domingo Albert, not by incumbent Secretary Alberto G. Romulo as some people think.

Paying $10,000 was not a unilateral or discretionary act of Rebong. If the $10,000 was too much, the home office — which conducted collegial consultations — should not have approved it.

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PREDECESSORS: A career diplomat, Rebong’s previous overseas assignments were all in the US. Her first posting was with the Philippine mission to the UN from 1982 to 1989 followed by an assignment to the embassy in Washington D.C. from 1993 to 1995.

She was transferred to the Philippine mission in 1997 when the Philippines assumed the chairmanship of the Group of 77. She was later reassigned to the consulate general in New York as deputy consul general.

Before her, the consul general in New York was Linglingay Lacanlale, who succeeded her as chief of presidential protocol and presidential foreign affairs assistant. Lacanlale was in the Big Apple form 1999-2003. Before Lacanlale, it was Willy Gaa from 1997 to1999. And before him, Romeo Arguelles was consul general from 1994 to 1996.

Except for Lacanlale, who opted to stay in Great Neck, the other two stayed in midtown Manhattan.

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REBONG SIDE: Reacting to stories and critical email making the rounds, Rebong said in a letter:

“I would like to assure you that in renting my official residence, every effort was taken to ensure that, under the circumstances, the Philippine government receives the value of its expenditure and that all laws, rules and regulations were observed in the process.

“This was a process that included a collegial examination and consideration of the lease contract by the appropriate offices of the Department, approval by then Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia D. Albert and the passing of required auditing and accounting requirements.

“As part of my duties, I have hosted functions and meetings with American investors, employers, community leaders, government officials, cultural leaders, members of media as well as with other diplomats and consular officials and Filipino community leaders at my current residence.

“Such functions and meetings are intended to build goodwill and close, personalities in pursuing our interests: from securing investments, tourism and trade, updating officials on developments in our country, promoting Philippine culture, ensuring that employers give Filipino employees the best terms and helping build close ties with and within the Filipino community.

“Until renovations are completed on our property at East 66th Street, I would have to rent a residence which:

* Was close to the Consulate General, and was centrally located to facilitate the holding of official and community functions,

* Accepted diplomats as tenants, and allowed the ‘diplomatic clause’ (early termination without penalty If termination is for official reasons) in the lease contract, and

Had rent within the range given to previous consuls-general in New York.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 7, 2005)

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