First of Two Parts

THE ELECTION Code is clear: Any printing press owned or controlled by the government is prohibited from being used in any election campaign or partisan political activity.

The penalties for officials of such an entity caught in violation of the law range from one to six years jail term without probation, along with disqualification from public office and forfeiture of the right of suffrage.

A printing press at APO. Photo by Tita C. Valderama.
 View slideshow of APO Production Unit, Inc.

But some officials of the APO Production Unit, Inc., which is under the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), say the company is “private” and is therefore free to print campaign materials for one of its board members who is among the candidates for local office on May 10, as well as for the son and a brother of two other company officers.

This is even though the company has been shuffled from one government agency to another through the years, seems to have become a dumping ground for protégés of people close to Malacañang, and has its books pored over from time to time by the state bean-counter, the Commission on Audit (COA).

‘Desire letters’

Its corporate policy-makers and officers also acquire their positions through a “desire letter” from the president of the Philippines.

Still, Roberto Brillante, former councilor and vice mayor of Makati City who now sits as a member of the APO Board of Trustees, insisted in an interview with PCIJ, “It’s a private corporation registered under the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), originally under NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority).”

“We are not appointed (officials),” Francisco A. Arellano, APO president and a nephew of Senator Joker P. Arroyo, also asserted. “We’re here through a desire letter. A desire letter is just a referral.”

Other members of the APO Board of Trustees are: Benjamin G. Defensor, chairman; Renato L. Tobias, treasurer; Juan P. Dayang, corporate secretary; Taciana B. Verceles, comptroller;  and Raul T. Corro, chairman, committee on legal affairs.

All of them have ties to the Palace or a past government official. Defensor is an uncle of former congressman and presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor, who is now running for mayor of Quezon City. Tobias is said to be a protégé of former Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita while Dayang is a media person close to Malacañang. Verceles is the widow of the late Immigration Commissioner Leandro Verceles Sr. and Corro was recommended to the Board by then Press Secretary Ignacio ‘Toting’ Bunye.

As member of the board, each of them is entitled to an honorarium of P30,000 every time the board meets, plus a monthly salary of P50,000 to P100,000. Apparently, too, the position comes with privileges such as free or discounted print jobs for themselves, their relatives, or their friends.

Relatives, Inc.?

Up until the third week of April, APO’s printing plant in Quezon City was churning out campaign materials for Corro, a candidate for councilor in Muntinlupa City;  Leandro Verceles Jr., who is running for congressman of Catanduanes; and Mario T. Lumanao, who is aiming to become Surigao del Sur vice governor.

Verceles Jr. is the son of the APO comptroller and board member, while Lumanao is the brother of Emmanuel T. Lumanao, APO’s executive vice president and general manager and a buddy of the late Press Secretary Cerge Remonde.

The printing of their campaign materials, which included four-color posters, leaflets, sample ballots, and pocket calendars, were apparently snuck in between the printing of forms and documents for the decade-end census of the National Statistics Office (NSO).

Last April 29, Brillante and Arellano toured PCIJ around the printing plant. It was teeming with activities for the NSO forms that are supposed to be finished by May 17. What caught the PCIJ attention was a handwritten note on a small white board inside the CTP (computer-to-machine) room where some of the campaign materials were done. It said: “Puro TY jobs ang priority.”  ‘TY’ means thank you or free of charge.

Beside it was a bigger board on which recent and current job orders were written. Although the scribblings did not include the number of copies for each order, there were ‘-D’ and ‘-N’ marks beside some of these. According to APO workers, ‘-D’ meant either the paper used was supplied or the printing job was granted a generous discount. (In some cases, the reams of paper used were sourced as “donations” from APO suppliers, the workers said.)

Job orders with ‘-N,’ meanwhile, meant nothing was paid for the printing.

Going by what was written on the board, there were two “discounted” job orders for pocket calendars and campaign posters, and a “complimentary” printing of handbooks for board member Verceles.  There were also “complimentary” printing job orders for election posters for Corro and posters for Lumanao.

Initially, both Brillante and Arellano feigned innocence when asked about the campaign materials being printed at the plant. When told that PCIJ has copies of the election paraphernalia printed by APO and that there were job orders that had ‘-N’ marks, Arellano said, “We do complimentary jobs. But they aren’t much, and only if there is excess paper.”

“Those are just small jobs,” Brillante also said. But then he seemed to take that back, saying, in reference to the campaign materials of Verceles and company: “I’m sure they paid. We won’t allow that if they didn’t pay.”

“No 50-percent down payment, no printing job,” added Brillante.

Private or public?

Reminded of Article XXII, Section 12 of Batas Pambansa Blg. 881, or the Omnibus Election Code that, among other things, prohibits the use of “….equipment, facilities owned or controlled by the government for an election campaign,” Arellano said, “Because we’re a private corporation, we’re not covered by that ban.”

He also noted that Board of Trustees member Corro, who had election materials printed by APO, is “a lawyer, (so) he should know.”

In truth, Corro, who served as councilor of Muntinlupa from 1998 to 2007, also sits as chairman of the legal committee in the APO Board. He got into the APO board in October 2007 through a “desire letter” from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. That letter was issued upon the recommendation of Press Secretary Bunye, who at the time had supervisory powers over APO, which was then under the Office of the Press Secretary.

When reached for comment, Corro said that the nature of his appointment to APO “is not a direct appointment” from the president, but through a desire letter that the Board could have refused. Asked if the Board has ever declined to honor a “desire letter” from the president, Corro replied that he did not know of any.

He did point out that after the Supreme Court ruled in early March that presidential appointees running for public office should leave their posts, he never received any suggestion or advice to resign from APO. Instead, he said, the APO Board “collective(ly)” told him to remain, which is why he is still collecting his salary and other compensation from the company.

But he also said, “I’m leaving my fate to the Board. I can leave anytime. I cannot resign because I may be accused of abandoning my post. And I am willing to reimburse one or two months (of honorarium and other compensation) I’m getting now if it’s ruled by the Board or any appropriate agency if indeed the nature of my appointment is a direct appointment, although by desire of the president.”

‘Tulong lang naman’

Corro did not deny that APO had printed campaign materials for him. Based on job orders obtained by the PCIJ, these included 80,000 pieces of leaflets with eight pages of his personal background and accomplishments, 8,000 pieces of pocket calendars, and another 5,000 pieces of campaign posters, all complimentary.

Apart from this, job order no. 1003032-N, a copy of which was obtained by PCIJ, shows Corro ordering last March 18 150 pieces of calling cards each for “seven names.” The ‘-N’ mark denotes that this order was free as well.

Flyers printed at APO featuring Muntinlupa City council
candidate Raul Corro, a member of APO’s board. Photo by
Tita C. Valderama. View more campaign paraphernalia printed at APO.

Corro, however, could seem to recall only pocket calendars that were “small in number, I can’t remember exactly how many.”

“This was prior to the campaign period,” he told PCIJ. According to Corro, APO’s printing of his election materials were “donations” by the company and the Board.

Kaunting tulong lang nila ‘yun sa akin, dinadala dito at nagpapasalamat naman ako sa tulong nila (It’s just their own little way of helping me, the materials are brought here and I’m thankful for their help),” he said.

On Tuesday, May 4, PCIJ received unverified information that Corro had asked APO to bill him for the campaign materials done at the company. A few hours later, the PCIJ was told that Corro’s delivery receipts were being replaced.

Compared to Corro, who was relatively responsive to PCIJ’s queries, his co-board member Taciana Verceles, was palpably irritated when PCIJ finally reached her by phone last Monday, May 3.

Director’s son

Pouncing on PCIJ’s reference to allegations of anomalies at APO, she said, bristling, “Don’t entertain that. It’s too much problem (sic). Even Malacanang does not entertain that. I have been a director there for 15 years at walang irregularity diyanNagpapasikat lang ‘yung mga labor-labor na ‘yan. Don’t entertain that.”

Verceles was referring in part to a brewing labor problem in APO, to which she appeared to be attributing the allegations of irregularities. Told about job orders indicating the printing of campaign materials for her son, a former congressman of Catanduanes, the APO comptroller said, “I paid for all the materials down to the last cent. I have the receipts here.”

Asked about the labor cost, Verceles replied, her voice rising, “We’re from APO! I’m too busy. Don’t entertain that. I’m sorry.” Then she hung up.

APO insiders said 64 reams of paper from the firm’s inventory were used for the initial printing of the campaign materials for Verceles’s son.  But the project needed 75 reams in all; according to the insiders, comptroller Verceles asked for discounts in the acquisition of the additional 11 reams.

Two job orders dated March 3, 2010 for Verceles indicated the printing of 100,000 pocket calendars for free, and 65,000 pieces of 17.5 x 17.5-inch campaign poster at a discount. Last April 19, there was a job order for an unspecified number of sample ballots, also for Verceles.

Some of the campaign posters for Verceles’s son that were printed at APO had this marking: “Printed by: Agustin Verceles, 2 Avocado Drive, Valley View Exec. Village, Phase 1, Cainta, Rizal; Paid for by: Leandro Verceles Jr., San Isidro, Virac, Catanduanes.”

A day after talking to comptroller Verceles on the phone, the PCIJ was told by an APO insider that Verceles’s job orders were erased from the company computer database. PCIJ, however, has yet to verify the information.

GM’s brother

APO general manager Lumanao, for his part, admitted having campaign posters printed by the company for his brother Mario, the Surigao del Sur vice gubernatorial bet of the PDP-Laban party.

Printed for Lumanao free of charge were 100,000 pieces of pocket calendar, 100,000 pieces of 12.5 x 12-inch calendar at a discounted price, and an undetermined number of pieces of posters.

Lumanao said complimentary printing jobs for the APO trustees were “normal.”  Besides, he said, the papers used for these types of printing jobs were either scrap or those deemed “unusable.”

He showed but refused to provide a copy of a March 3, 2010 memo by Alan Paton-og, APO materials department supervisor. The internal memo cited the company’s December 2009 year-end report as saying, “Some of our sheeted papers are unusable due to deterioration and discoloration and have been classified as non-moving items for so many years. These stocks are tediously counted every year and occupy a large portion of our warehouse.”

The memo thus recommended that the paper stocks comprising 67 reams of book paper, white bond, and self-adhesive stickers – all worth a total of P257,781.32 — be disposed of, either by being sold or used for complimentary jobs.

Samples of the APO-printed campaign materials obtained by PCIJ, however, turned out to be paper stock without any sign of deterioration or discoloration. Sample ballots were also of good quality imported book paper and newsprint.

‘Complimentary’

Some APO employees see nothing wrong with the printing of “complimentary” campaign materials for board members. The employees’ union president, Salvador Prado, even says, “E kung sa iba nga gumagawa kami ng complimentary, sa board pa kaya (Well, we do complimentary jobs for others, what more for the board).”

Prado now sits at the APO board as an observer, after his predecessor, Alfredo Bautista, was promoted last February as assistant production manager.  As observer on the board, Prado receives a P10,000 honorarium for every meeting he attends

Yet even granting the APO board members of their assertion that the company is private “private” nature, they may still be held liable under Republic Act No. 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

The Act’s Section 3, paragraph (i) prohibits a private individual from “(directly) or indirectly becoming interested, for personal gain, or having a material interest in any transaction or act requiring the approval of a board, panel or group of which he is a member, and whish exercises discretion in such approval, even if he votes against the same or does not participate in the action of the board, committee, panel or group.”

Section 4 of the same law also says: “It shall be unlawful for any person having family or close personal relation with any public official to capitalize or exploit or take advantage of such family or close personal relation by directly or indirectly requesting or receiving any present, gift or material or pecuniary advantage from any other person having some business, transaction, application, request or contract with the government, in which such public official has to intervene.

Violation of the anti-graft law carries a penalty of one to 10 years imprisonment, plus perpetual disqualification from public office and forfeiture of prohibited interest or unexplained wealth manifestly out of proportion to his salary and other lawful income. – To be continued