POSTSCRIPT / October 28, 2012 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Real targets of bridges exposé are GMA, Mike

REAL TARGETS: A big problem of Sen. Sergio Osmeña III is how to link former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband Jose Miguel to the alleged criminal misuse of some P111 billion for the 18-year-old Presidential Bridges Program for countryside development.

The Arroyos are the real targets of the administration’s resurrecting claims that corruption marred the bridges program spanning the administrations of four presidents since Fidel V. Ramos launched it in 1994.

President Noynoy Aquino himself alerted the public in one of his recent speeches that charges would soon be filed against the Arroyos on the “Bridges to Nowhere” scandal.

Whenever pending cases against Ms Arroyo, now the congresswoman of the second district of Pampanga, are about to be thrown out mostly for insufficient evidence, new charges are filed to keep her indefinitely detained.

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COLLATERAL DAMAGE: Rep. Teodorico Haresco, who has been taking the brunt of Osmeña’s fulminating against the “Tulay ng Pangulo” program, looks like collateral damage. The party-list congressman was behind some of the foreign-assisted bridges in question.

It looks like Haresco could get off the hook only if he testified or stood as a state witness against the Arroyos and pinned them as beneficiaries of overpricing of the pre-fabricated steel bridges.

Since Osmeña still does not have air-tight evidence to nail down the Arroyos, he has been unable to file the proper complaints with the Office of the Ombudsman.

Instead, he is using the usual Senate Blue Ribbon committee investigation to gather evidence and, in the public process, smear his targets through the media and convict them in the people’s mind even before charges are filed.

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‘BUMENTA NA’: It may be inaccurate to call Osmeña’s privilege speech on the Presidential Bridges Program as an “exposé.” He did not say anything substantially new.

In street lingo, the “Bridges to Nowhere” drama ay “bumenta na.” The same catchy kicker was used by Sen. Panfilo Lacson in 2005 when he railed against the same program in a similar privilege speech.

With the help of pictures, Lacson showed that some bridges were built without roads linked to them.

But since no solid evidence of crime emerged from the alarm raised in the Senate, no charges prospered. The persons cited in the hearings were all cleared by the Ombudsman in 2009.

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SPANS BEFORE ROADS: The difference is that while there were some solitary spans when Lacson stood to denounce them, those bridges — according to Haresco – now connect communities and are helping bring development to rural areas.

Hitting back at Osmeña with his own privilege speech in the House, Haresco said the senator was misleading the public. “It is easy to make any bridge seem like a bridge to nowhere,” he said, “as long as photographers know how to take an ‘infinity shot.’”

He clarified: “All engineers will say that bridges must come first before roads. This is because soil conditions have to stabilize before the local government units can upgrade the roads to meet the angle of the ramps. So at some point in time, bridges in the countryside look like bridges to nowhere. But perhaps a year later the same bridge will show that to be false.”

Tracing the program’s features, he pointed out that Executive Order 230 of then President Cory Aquino outlines strict approval processes and procedures for the inclusion in the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan of bridges requested by local governments.

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CORY CONCEPT: Former President Ramos has defended the program. It was set up, he said, “for poverty alleviation and infrastructure support to link the remotest and poorest communities all over the country by building at least 15,000 spans or 200,000 lineal meters of bridges.”

“It actualized the long-range Cory plan by the innovative coordination of foreign development assistance, low interest borrowings, LGU counterpart funds, and voluntary labor from beneficiary communities – all under the engineering supervision of then DPWH Secretary Gregorio Vigilar with then Executive Secretary Teofisto Guingona as overall ‘PBP Czar’,” Ramos said.

Guingona was the father of Teofisto Guingona III, chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee now investigating the bridges program.

The PBP spans the Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and the current Aquino administrations. But the focus now seems to be finding fault only with the segment under the Arroyo administration.

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MASSIVE COLLUSION?: Haresco described as absurd and baseless allegations of “massive collusion throughout the administrations of four Presidents, the overwatch of Executive Secretaries, Secretaries of the Department of Finance, Justice, Public Works and Highways, and the Interior and Local Government, the NEDA-ICC, the Monetary Board and the Commission on Audit.”

“Osmeña further implied that even foreign ambassadors were part of the connivance,” the congressman said.

The bridges are being financed with easy loans and grants from several foreign governments that are presumed to have done their due diligence to prevent irregularities.

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WHY NO BIDDING: It used to be that lenders to the Philippines on concessional terms were limited to only two multilaterals (Asian Development Bank and World Bank) and one bilateral (Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund Japan).

In 1994, the bridges program tapped Official Development Assistance (ODA), ushering in bilateral loans from Japan, Austria, Spain, Korea, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

RA 8182 was passed in 1996 amending RA 4860 to exclude ODA from the foreign debt limit and optimize use of foreign assistance for development.

As amended, RA 8182 provides that ODA must contain a grant element of at least 25 percent. Grants are non-cash items taking the form of capital equipment and facilities, consultancy, training, technology transfers and the like.

When the development assistance has the required minimum 25 percent in grants, public bidding is dispensed with and the country extending the ODA picks the supplier.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 28, 2012)

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