BATANGAS GOVERNOR Armando Sanchez says journalist Mei Magsino-Lubis is “lying through her teeth when she says she is in hiding.” He also says “the only time there were PNP personnel looking for her” was when she was still the subject of an arrest operation covered by “a valid arrest warrant” regarding the oral defamation case he had filed against the Inquirer correspondent.
After she posted bail, the governor says in a written reply to questions sent to him by the PCIJ, “the operation to arrest her was stopped.””We completely deny the canard that two prisoners from the Batangas Provincial Jail were deliberately let loose to kill Mei Magsino-Lubis,” he adds. “(We) challenge any and everyone to conduct unannounced head counts of the prisoners in the Provincial Jail.”
Such a head count would have meant a lot during the time of Magsino-Lubis’s own “escape.” But now it would be futile, if citizens’ crime watchgroups are to be believed. Ellen Gran of the Crusade Against Violence, for instance, says prisoners who are let out of jail to commit crimes at the instigation of powerful people are usually let in again after the deed is done or the plot is uncovered. This gives the criminals the perfect alibi because it appears they had been in prison all the time.
Governor Sanchez of course would probably rather that people count not the prisoners in the provincial jail, but his accomplishments as a public official, especially as mayor of Sto. Tomas town. This includes a three-story town hall that was built, according to official statements, with P22 million of his own personal funds. His stint as mayor also produced a 28-bed hospital and garnered the municipality the top prize in a nationwide search for the cleanest and greenest town in 2002. It also led to the computerization of Sto. Tomas’s real property tax collection system, which, says Sanchez, resulted in a 300-percent increase in collection and enabled the municipality to make the huge leap from being fifth-class to first-class. He had wanted this computerization program to be replicated throughout the whole of Batangas, but his attempt to do so has somehow dragged him into controversy.
Then again, there are other controversies that Sanchez has found himself in, foremost of which involves the nagging allegation that he is a jueteng lord. Journalists from the region have long referred to the alleged links of Sanchez to the illegal game. When he won the gubernatorial seat last year, among the first questions the local media there asked was on Sanchez’s supposed jueteng connections. He and his supporters have repeatedly denied this. In the local paper Batangan, one of his key campaign personnel and present provincial administrator, Ronnie Geron, was quoted as saying, “Arman is not into jueteng.” Geron, however, said that his boss was a partner in an “online sports betting” venture, although he also said Sanchez would soon divest himself of his interests in that business.
In his reply to the PCIJ’s queries, Sanchez himself says, “We reiterate that we do not know anything about jueteng.” But he also says, “We have been very consistent in our stand for its legalization, from the time I became mayor, during the two terms that I served in Sto. Tomas and up to the time I was elected Governor. Now that it has stopped, we are hoping that the issue would be laid to rest.”
For sure, Sanchez, who, based on his own assets statement, is worth at least P90 million, does not comport himself like a lord — not even a jueteng lord. This is even though he was, by many accounts, already rich by the time he entered politics and became mayor of Sto. Tomas in 1998. Educated as a mechanical engineer, Sanchez worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s before coming back and reportedly starting several businesses, among them construction firms, a travel agency, and a security agency. But in the conjugal 2004 statement of assets and liabilities he filed with his wife Edna, at present the Sto. Tomas mayor, no business interests appear.
Although wealthy, the portly governor prefers comfort to class. Those who know him well say that even while at work at the capitol, he likes to wear a kamiseta (sleeveless undershirt), a pair of loose shorts, and flipflops. Like many of his provincemates, he also tends to talk loudly, as if always gearing for a fight. Which is just as well. The national dailies say that in fact Sanchez is in a “brawl” with his own vice governor, who will not let go of the jueteng issue, aside from other things. In the prefatory statement in the graft case he filed before the Ombudsman in early September, Vice Governor Richard ‘Ricky’ Recto even says that Sanchez is “widely known” to be a jueteng lord not just in Batangas, “but nationwide.” According to Recto, Sto. Tomas has been known as the “center of (Sanchez’s) jueteng operations for the last 20 years.”
Earlier this year, Sanchez’s name had also surfaced in lists of government officials with alleged jueteng links. Drawn up by the Department of Justice and the People’s Crusade Against Jueteng, these lists were partly why Sanchez was summoned last June to the Senate hearings on jueteng. But Sanchez told the Senate that he would be in Japan on a business trip at the time and could not make it. He was not summoned again.
Recto’s case against Sanchez, however, is not really about jueteng. Rather, it alleges that the governor “and his 15 co-conspirators” are carrying out a P350-million real property tax computerization project under anomalous circumstances, rigging the bid and awarding the deal to a “dummy” corporation, the Automated Data Processing Technologies Inc. (ADPT), purportedly owned by Sanchez himself.
The governor dismisses Recto’s findings of irregularities, saying they are “at best a flawed opinion.” Sanchez says all of capitol’s projects, including the computerization, have gone through all the procedures laid out in the law. He also says, “(The) final step mandated by the New Procurement Law is the review process now being done by the (Commission on Audit).”
In earlier denials of wrongdoing published in local newspapers, capitol officials defending the contract said that all documents pertaining to the contract were immediately turned over to COA after the first payment was made. Sanchez now says, “We are asking everybody to simmer down a little bit and just wait for (COA’s) findings.”
But Recto retorts that the documents given to COA had already been sanitized. “I think they pulled out the papers after Mei’s story and redid the whole thing,” Recto says, referring to Magsino-Lubis’s Inquirer report that questioned how ADPT could have won the contract when the company had not even been born yet at the time that the payment for it was obligated.
Asked by Newsbreak in September about public perception that he was merely running after the governor’s seat, Recto told the magazine, “I’ve been through that.” He stressed, “If my allegations happen to be true, whatever my motivations are, please forgive me.” Later that month, when the suspension order for the governor that he was expecting did not come, Recto called for a press conference in Manila and repeated the claims he makes in his graft case. Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles sat beside the vice governor and was later described by newspapers as having rebuked Sanchez for “graft and corruption, the atmosphere of fear, and the spread of vice” in the province.
Sanchez has since told PCIJ that “if given a chance to meet and converse with (the Archbishop), I am certain that he would completely change his preconceived apprehensions about me.”
Sanchez does have his own set of admirers, among them Batangan‘s Sonny Atienza, who in a 2004 column praised the new governor for his “definite goals and objectives,” including a plan to rid the province of drug abuse. Atienza also cited Sanchez’s successful move to rid the bureaucracy of “nonperforming assets” and have capitol personnel practice strict observance of office hours. And, wrote Atienza, in just a matter of one or two days, Sanchez was even able to clear the roads leading to the capitol of parked jeepneys that had robbed other motorists and pedestrians of needed space.
The governor, however, seems to have had a harder time fending off all sorts of allegations, such as cheating in the 2004 elections. In response to a protest lodged by losing candidate Rosario Apacible, who placed second in a field of seven, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) began a recount of the gubernatorial votes from some 2,000 precincts across the province. Apacible alleges that Sanchez’s winning margin of some 60,000 votes was merely the result of fraud, including the use of dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and -shaving).
As of this writing, the Comelec has completed a recount of just some 600 precincts. The recount was suspended at the end of September after Comelec personnel discovered around 90 empty ballot boxes from the municipality of Padre Garcia.