WHAT SECRET or secrets of the House of Representatives under Speaker Prospero Nograles would escape public scrutiny, amid Congress’s failed effort to ratify the Freedom of Information Act last Friday?
Many have asked that question after noting that Nograles himself had co-authored House Bill No. 3732, the lower chamber’s version of the FOI bill, which was authored by a full two-thirds or 181 of about 220 House members.
The Speaker had also once described the measure as an effective tool in “attacking” the “deadly virus” of corruption. Said Nograles in a public statement he issued on April 2, 2008: “When there is full disclosure of all government transactions involving public interest, subject to limitations under the proposed Act, the people will have full confidence and trust in their public officials and therefore there will be effective governance.”
Yet last June 4, at 5:07 p.m., he did a seeming 180-degree turn. “The session is adjourned sine die,” Nograles said before he banged the gavel to close the 14th Congress.
The authors of the aborted bill have since disclosed that Nograles and his allies raised one big objection to the bill: it could be used to review and audit, in a retroactive manner, the deeds and decisions of lawmakers and public officials.
Already, the 14th Congress is not looking too good even in terms of legislative performance alone.
According to the CongressWatch reports of the Makati Business Club, with a much smaller budget, the 13th Congess passed 154 laws, including 140 that were approved during the third regular session or close to its adjournment sine die in June 2007.
Of the 154, only 39 were of national application just a fourth of the total laws passed. The 13th Congress’s output is lower than that of the previous Congresses, notably 92, 54, and 69 national laws during the 10th, 11th, and 12th Congress, respectively, according to CongressWatch.
As of March 16, 2010, the Senate’s official website says that only 54 laws had been passed by the 14th Congress, out of 82 that had been passed by both chambers.
The Senate, however, had acted upon and passed 821 bills, out of 3,589 bills that had been filed by the 23 senators. The House has yet to report on its accomplishments as of press time.
Contracts under wraps
And yet, with or without the Freedom of Information Act, the House of the 14th Congress under Nograles may have to explain not just many old contracts that it has kept under wraps, but also a number that it is still bidding out – supposedly for use of the 15th Congress that is scheduled to convene on July 26 yet.
In fact, on the same day that the 14th Congress adjourned last June 4, Nograles’s ally, Artemio A. Adasa Jr., chair of the House’s Bid and Awards Committee, closed the bidding for the “supply and delivery of 325 pcs of Executive Tables and 25 pcs of Chairs for the Session Hall of the House of Representatives.”
The approved budget for the contract: a staggering P8,067,500 for the 350 combined total of tables and chairs. This means that the unit cost of each table and chair the Nograles’s House wants to buy for the next House is a fabulous P23,050.
The bid notice signed by Adasa, former congressman from Zamboanga del Norte, was posted from May 29 to June 4 on the House website but has since been pulled down. The pre-bid conference is scheduled today, the opening of the bid documents on June 16, the issuance of the notice of award on June 18, and the delivery of the new “executive tables and chairs,” within 30 days from the award of the contract.
Why the 14th Congress must purchase new tables and chairs for the Session Hall for use by the 15th Congress does not seem either proper or necessary, according to minority lawmakers.
For one, it does not look like the tables that lawmakers of the 14th Congress had hardly used need any immediate replacement. The House had recently bought new chairs for the lawmakers. For another, they note, the additional members of the 15th Congress from party-list groups and the new congressional districts would not expand the number of House members to more than 287.
(Nograles, a three-term congressman, had lost his bid for mayor of Davao City to Sara Duterte, the daughter of his archrival, outgoing Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Nograles will not even sit as member of the 15th Congress. His son and chief of staff, Karlo Alexei, ran and won right to his vacated congressional seat.)
In default of COA
Yet apart from the P8.06-million contract for tables and chairs, Nograles’s 14th Congress had also been found in default of audit and budget procedures by the Commission on Audit (COA).
The 2008 COA report on the House under Nograles noted that as of Dec. 31, 2008, unnamed congressmen and House personnel had failed to liquidate a total of P15.9 million mostly for travel expenses, incorrectly reported petty cash fund balances of P422,000, and had left P6.77 million worth of four security machines “not utilized and properly kept, and thus exposed to rapid deterioration.”
The 2009 COA report on the House has not been publicly disclosed, but COA insiders told the PCIJ that a number of adverse findings are also enrolled in the report that should have been finished last April 30.
These adverse findings of the COA seem to contravene Nograles’s avowed commitment to uphold “transparency” and to “make every peso count” when he became Speaker in February 2008.
Nograles, in fact, wrestled the speakership from Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr., a long-time ally of outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on a platform of “transparency.”
But by all indications, instead of “transparency” in the conduct of its fiscal operations, the House under Nograles has distinguished itself for big and expensive infrastructure and supply and services contracts for renovation, beautification and modernization of the lower chamber’s physical facilities, and administrative processes.
Initially, Nograles seemed to have followed up on his pledge when the House uploaded on its website, www.congress.ph, details of the projects funded by the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – also known as pork barrel – of the House members.
In 2007, Nograles reported that his P35-million PDAF share assisted 36 various education, health and public works projects in his home district and region (Region XI). He said he gave P11 million for computer equipment purchases and scholarship programs for his home region, and P13.2 million for 24 multi-purpose buildings.
In 2008, while most other congressmen disclosed their PDAF-assisted projects, not a single Nograles project was reported on the House website. But as Speaker, Nograles had by then assumed command and discretion over not just his PDAF but also other bigger lump-sum funds in the House’s budget.
Big, bigger budgets
Over the years, the House under Nograles had awarded itself bigger and bigger budgets
In 2007, the House gave itself a budget of P3.44 billion, and in 2008, P3.75 billion. In 2009, the House budget rose further to P4.6 billion and for the current year, rose again by a fourth to P5.53 billion. (These amounts exclude the appropriations for the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal or HRET that are also under the Speaker’s control.)
Of its P3.75-billion total budget in 2008, the House allotted P1.8 billion to maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE), P1.6 billion to personal services, and P115 million to capital outlay.
It was in 2009 that the House’s shift to big purchases became evident. Of its P4.6-billion total budget, nearly half or P2.2 billion went to MOOE, another P1.9 billion to personal services, and just P160 million to capital outlay.
In 2010, of the House’s total budget of P5.53 billion, more than half or P2.7 billion has been set aside for MOOE, P2.1 billion for personal services, and P398 million for capital outlay.
Many of the House’s various million- and billion-peso contracts have since raised allegations of being overpriced and “negotiated,” with some of the accusations coming from inside the House itself.
For instance, in April 2008, the House acquired a P5.8-million air-conditioned bus with a 55-seat capacity.
In May 2008, Rosario ‘Bea’ Obsequio Riel, director of the House’s Internal Audit Department (IAD), blew the whistle on a P4.9-million contract to purchase fire extinguishers that were substandard and overpriced by 150 percent.
Riel also accused Adasa, deputy secretary general and Bid and Awards Committee chairman, of awarding the contract to his supposedly favored contractor, the First Defense Enterprises (FDE) owned by Leonor Dulay.
There is also the case of a multimillion-peso disbursement for a House project that has yet to materialize.
In June 2008, the House boasted that a P15-million biometrics voting system would roll out once Congress opened its second regular session under Nograles.
Rodolfo V. Vicera, director-general of the Congressional Planning and Budget Department (CPBD) and director of the project that started under De Venecia’s term, had told reporters that the new system would have been online in August 2008.
Once in operation, he said, the system would feature “fingerprint voting through biometrics units installed per congressman’s table,” in place of the manual counting of votes and the manual checking of attendance. Vicera said it would have “one central processing unit, 240 computer units each with Internet protocol-based gadgets and finger print scanner, two 3.66-meter x 4.88-meter multimedia projection screens at both sides of the plenary hall to show votes and attendance, and a 127-centimeter television set that will show schedules of committee hearings.”
The House project is part of the so-called “ICT Projects Funded under the E-Government Fund” that had been covered by multimillion-peso disbursements from 2006 to 2008. According to a National Computer Center report, at least P169 million in public funds had been released by the Department of Budget and Management for the House project alone, as of December 2008.
To this day, the House voting and attendance-tally system remains in the dinosaur stage.
In June 2008, the PCIJ reported that ahead of the opening of the House’s second regular session with Nograles as Speaker, hundreds of millions of pesos had been spent on a massive facelift of the Old Batasang Pambansa building.
With an initial funding of P200 million from President Arroyo from undisclosed funding sources – because no such funds had been allotted in the 2008 budget of the House – the makeover of the House involved:
- 400 laborers worked round the clock in the last six weeks to opening of the House session.
- Repair of the canopy of the South Wing lobby that was damaged by a powerful bomb blast in November 2007. The initial bill of P9.7 million for this was sourced from funds of the House in February 2008.
- Use of the P200 million from Arroyo that Nograles requested for the repair, repainting, upgrade, and landscaping of the main and North Wing buildings of the House.
- Construction of a new four-storey South Wing annex building will rise at a cost of P300 million, courtesy of the Department of Public Works and Highways. (The project was started under De Venecia Jr, Nograles’s predecessor.).
- Purchase of two units of air-conditioned buses with 55-seat capacity worth P5.8 million each, or P11.6 million in all.
- Repair and construction of about 30 public comfort rooms worth up to P700,000 each, or at least P200 million in all..
- Purchase of 135 units of fire extinguishers, including 100 units with 20-pound capacity worth P20,720 each, inclusive of 12 percent value-added tax, or over P2 million had been purchased.
- Purchase of two ambulance units for the House medical clinic.
Also on the drawing boards of the House under Nograles by June 2008 were many other projects, including:
- The construction of a new building near the Batasan flagpole to house the library and archives, and museum of Congress.
- * The full replacement of the dilapidated condenser pipes of the main building’s centralized air-conditioning system.
- The electrical rewiring and sewerage repair of the Batasan complex.
- T he replacement of four service elevator units, or two units each in the North and South Wings.
- The acquisition of more closed-circuit television surveillance cameras and other security equipment to further secure the complex.
As a matter of course, the House uploads on is website the bid documents for most contracts that it awards, but only up to the close of the call for bids. The House bidding process has been closed to representatives of the public, while the bid documents submitted by the participating contractors and the decision of the BAC are not disclosed at all.
Not surprisingly, suspicion lingers that many secrets have been kept under lock and key in the House. Supporters of the Freedom of Information Act thus argue that it would have served the public – and the House – well.
One lawmaker told PCIJ that if retroactivity was indeed the Speaker’s major concern, it meant that “there could be skeletons in the closet that he did not want exposed.” – PCIJ, June 2010