POSTSCRIPT / August 10, 2006 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Gutierrez faces acid test in OWWA fund charges

IN DUST BIN: Would you believe, that complaint filed with the Ombudsman by former Solicitor General Francisco I. Chavez on alleged misuse of trust funds for overseas workers’ welfare was submitted not last July 20 but way back on July 20, 2004.

Since then, according to Chavez, “after more than two years, the complaint has gathered dust and lies in wake, eventually to be interred when no one would care or even dare to take up the subject.”

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

President Gloria Arroyo is on top of the list of those accused, who include 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.

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A BIG IF: Like several readers who emailed me, Chavez said, “I agree with you that taking OWWA to court is the best recourse.” The filing supposedly moved the case from the noisy marketplace to the courts.

“But that submission is subject to a big IF, i.e., IF the system works,” he said. “A complaint that has not been acted upon, except to be assigned a docket number by the Office of the Ombudsman, is a stab in the wind. Up to this day, not one of the respondents has been required to submit a counter-affidavit.”

On my comment that the President can only be impeached and not charged criminally during her tenure, he said: “The President may be immune from suit while in office but she is not immune from investigation.

“If there is probable cause, then the moment the case is filed in court, an incumbent President may perhaps raise the defense of immunity. But would Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez investigate Gloria Macapagal Arroyo? Sorry for asking such a silly question.”

Ms Gutierrez, formerly chief presidential legal counsel, vowed after her appointment as Ombudsman in November 2005 that her close association with Ms Arroyo would not influence her handling of cases.

We know she just inherited the complaint over OWWA funds, but cannot the lady Ombudsman dust off the case folder and take the process another quick step forward?

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GALLING SNUB: The resident auditor assigned to the OWWA, meanwhile, has certified to the Senate labor committee looking into the mess that P7.3 billion of OWWA funds are intact, most of them held in government banks.

In the second hearing of the committee headed by opposition Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, the auditor testified that as of June 30, 2006, P3.2 billion were deposited with the Land Bank, another P3.2 billion with the Development Bank of the Philippines, and P703 million with other banks.

But this is not what has been galling the senators investigating the suspected dissipation of workers’ funds. It is more of their having been snubbed by officials of OWWA, the foreign office and the labor department summoned to the hearings.

Their refusal to testify has raised suspicion that they could be covering up a dark secret about how the billions had been systematically looted.

Perhaps the Senate should look deeper into the nature of the OWWA deposits, placements, investments or whatever account was opened with those banks. They may also want to cross-check the details of the in-house auditor’s testimony.

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GOOD GRIEF: As pointed out by our publisher Max Soliven, with authority I would say, those two Coast Guard ferries chosen to pick up stranded Filipinos in Beirut and take them to temporary havens in some countries across the Mediterranean may not be able to make that arduous voyage.

As a friend has told me, it is the typhoon season in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf, where the ferries intend to pass, not to say in the Straits of Malacca or here in Philippine waters.

Knowledgeable individuals have pointed out that the puny vessels do not look like they could make it to Beirut in 15 days, as Coast Guard optimists say, or make it at all.

As we said last time, let us make sure we do not end up sending more ships later to rescue the rescuers.

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GREAT GREEKS: The ferry-shuttle plan points to the need for shifting to the sea rather than traveling over land routes out of heavily bombarded Beirut.

If the plan is just to move OFWs gathered in Beirut, it is probably cheaper to hire or charter vessels already near that port than sending empty vessels from Manila all the way to Lebanon for taxi-like ferry service.

Another friend in the shipping business said that if we hire a ferry in the area that is fast and big enough, and its destination is not more than 200 nautical miles from Beirut, we may be able to move about 1,000 workers a day or about 7,000 a week. And if hire four such ferries, we can evacuate about 28,000 passengers a week.

Our ambassador to Greece, Rigoberto Tiglao, reportedly has lined up some Greek ship owners who certainly have better ships than our inland ferries and who want to help in the evacuation.

The task force headed by Vice President Noli de Castro overseeing the evacuation was reported considering an offer of Greek shipping magnate Antoniou Antonious to send a passenger ship that can ferry at least 2,000 workers from Lebanon to Cyprus for free, meals included.

Antonious owns Olympic Gulf Tankers Co. based in the Emirates and Greece, 80 percent of whose seafarers and employees are Filipinos. He is married to a Filipina.

He planned to ask an association of ship owners in Greece to contribute to the hiring of a vessel for about $2 million. If needed, he was prepared to shoulder the entire amount. But he said the Philippine government should handle the documentation and getting permission from Cyprus for the evacuation.

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FREE RIDES: Tiglao said the Cyprus government was receptive to the Philippine request for clearance, but wanted that a plane be ready to fly the evacuees to Manila as soon as they landed in Cyprus.

The Philippine government, he said, would also have to produce $400,000 in war insurance for the evacuees.

Swallowing his pride, De Castro said the government might again ask the International Organization for Migration for aircraft from Cyprus to Manila. The IOM has brought home several planeloads of evacuees at no cost to the government.

He added that Bahrain had also offered to fly 2,000 OFWs from Beirut to Bahrain and allow them to stay in one of its coliseums for at most seven days. The government would have to pay for their air travel from Bahrain to Manila.

Obviously, whatever the options, a great deal of cash is still needed. Can we not get the money from OWWA? If not, why not — when the billions in its care are meant for looking after workers’ welfare?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 10, 2006)

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