POSTSCRIPT / August 8, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Chavez's taking OWWA to court is the best recourse

(PAHABOL — After we filed this column Tuesday (Aug. 8), the government shelved the plan to send two Coast Guard ferries to Lebanon. Vice President Noli de Castro said it would be safer and cheaper to charter vessels near Beirut to transfer Filipinos there to nearby ports. The Coast Guard has said P93 million is needed to send the ferries on that mission to Lebanon.)

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TO THE RESCUE: It is heartening to know that despite our logistical limitations we are sending two Coast Guard ferries to Lebanon to pluck our stranded compatriots from the Beirut port and take them to safer sites in Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt while the next steps are being finalized.

The 6,568-nautical-mile voyage from Manila will take 20 days one-way with several stops along the way. The ferries, usually used for search and rescue, can load 300 passengers each. There is a medical clinic, among other facilities, on board.

Estimates of how much the shuttle operation costs vary, but that detail — plus the sordid mess that is the overseas workers’ welfare fund — can be sorted out later.

As the faithful did before and during the La Naval sea battles against Dutch privateers in the 17 th Century, let us pray for the safety and success of this mission. We want the vessels and the crew to be in tip-top condition, so we do not have to dispatch more ships later to rescue the rescuers.

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DUE PROCESS: Instead of just blabbering with one eye on the TV camera, lawyer Frank Chavez researched on workers’ welfare funds held in trust by the government, gathered official documents and — seeing evidence of crime committed — filed the proper complaint with the Ombudsman.

This is better than legislators’ firing off summons to Executive officials to fish for evidence of wrongdoing, a futile exercise since Malacanang is not about to oblige. Besides a Senate inquiry at this time distracts agencies busy rescuing Filipinos trapped in Lebanon.

Chavez’s complaint was for alleged plunder, graft and corruption, malversation and illegal use of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration funds, and violations of the code of conduct and ethical standards for public officials.

Accused were President Gloria Arroyo, former OWWA chief Virgilio Angelo, former Philippine Health Insurance (PhilHealth) chief and now Health Secretary Francisco Duque and former Executive Secretary and now Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo.

With that, due process has been initiated for ferreting out and punishing officials who may have misappropriated or misused trust funds meant for overseas workers’ welfare. The accused now have a chance to clear themselves in a proper forum.

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DIVERTED, MISUSED: But the President can only be impeached and not charged criminally during her tenure? That is for her to say in defense.

In his complaint received by the Ombudsman last July 20, Chavez accused the President of having engaged in a “felonious conspiracy and (with the) cooperation of her co-respondents orchestrated a systematic raid of the OWWA (funds) which (were) used for expenditures unrelated to the OFWs’ (overseas Filipino workers) welfare.”

The documents showed, he said, that OWWA funds financed some activities of several Philippine diplomatic posts in the Middle East, such as the Philippine Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, and the 2004 election campaign of President Arroyo.

In his affidavit complaint, Chavez said such use of OWWA funds was illegal, because those contributions from employers and overseas workers are trust funds for the specific benefit of OFWs and not general government funds to be spent for just any public purpose.

He pointed out that the money is not a discretionary fund whose disbursement or use is determined solely by the President.

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MEMOS CITED: Among the documents he submitted was a memorandum for the President dated March 12, 2003, where then Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo “sought the release of $293,500 to finance the ‘preparatory activities’ of the RP post in Kuwait and ‘purchase of vehicles and ‘stockpiling’ of the posts in Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Iran in support of the US-led war in Iraq.”

The memorandum had a marginal note purportedly of Ms Arroyo saying “OK charge to OWWA” in approving the disbursement of the requested amount from the trust fund.

“This latest officially sanctioned pilferage did not include the amount of $53,000 already taken from the POEA/OWWA as mentioned in the memorandum,” Chavez said.

In another memorandum dated May 5, 2003, Romulo requested the release of P5 million as operating expenses for a task force for the Philippine Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. This was also approved allegedly by the President in a marginal note stating “OK from OWWA.”

Then OWWA administrator Virgilio Angelo was informed of the approved release of OWWA funds.

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COVERAGE LIMITED: Chavez mentioned another memorandum dated July 1, 2003, wherein the OWWA chief shelved the General Financial Assistance Program and stopped the acceptance and processing of OFW claims that reportedly stood at P16,510,900 as of July 1, 2003.

The amount corresponded to the $293,500 spent for preparatory activities and vehicles in the Middle East, according to Chavez.

He said a new policy was ushered in when the OWWA board limited OWWA services to “contributing members” and required OFWs to pay $25 per contract, which is generally every two years. This new policy, he said, disenfranchised other classes of OFWs.

He charged that the “obvious trend is toward decreasing expenditures for OFWs by suspending certain OWWA programs or by reducing the number of beneficiaries to free the OWWA fund for utilization in other purposes.”

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DUQUE IDEA: Chavez said Malacanang was behind the policy changes. As early as June 20, 2002, he said, the President instructed the OWWA board to issue guidelines to address “management and utilization of the OWWA funds.”

He said in his complaint that “with de facto control over the fund came opportunities for its abuse.” Contributions of OFWs, he added, were channeled to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. to ensure President Arroyo’s election in May 2004.

On Nov. 20, 2002, then PHIC chief Duque (now health secretary) submitted to the President a proposed executive order providing for the transfer of health insurance funds of OFWs from the OWWA to the PHIC. Duque allegedly wrote:

“PHIC will need a reasonable lead time to ensure smooth turnover of OWWA Medicare to PHIC and manage some resistance from certain quarters which will be affected by the change. It is respectfully requested that the proposed Executive Order (EO) be approved by her Excellency before the year ends. The proposed transfer will have a significant bearing on 2004 elections and on the President’s desire to provide health insurance to 8 M indigents by the end of 2003.”

Duque added: “I will be available to explain in greater detail the far reaching political implications of the transfer. May I ask that we meet personally?”

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MEDICARE FUNDS: So President Arroyo issued on Feb. 14, 2003, Executive Order No. 182, transferring OWWA Medicare funds to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp.

Chavez said his was done without consultation of the major stakeholders. Thus, when EO 182 drew protests from migrant workers’ groups, Duque allegedly proposed its withdrawal on the ground of non-consultation and non-publication before its approval.

He said: “As the election campaign period was under way, P530,382,446 of the OFW health insurance funds was siphoned off to the PHIC despite Dr. Duque’s admission of lack of due process in the issuance of EO 182.”

He submitted to the Ombudsman a copy of OWWA board resolution dated Feb. 2, 2004, approving the transfer of P530,382,446.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 8, 2006)

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