Former tourism secretary Wanda Teo, Bitag Media Unlimited Inc. CEO and founder Ben Tulfo and show co-host Erwin Tulfo face senators during a Blue Ribbon hearing on the P120-million DOT ad controversy yesterday. / Geremy Pintolo
Gordon sees clear conflict of interest
MANILA, Philippines — Broadcaster Ben Tulfo yesterday denied any wrongdoing in what has been flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA) as an irregular deal between the government-run People’s Television Network Inc. (PTV) and the Department of Tourism (DOT) that in effect had his firm as subcontractor.
Appearing at the Senate Blue Ribbon committee hearing on the controversial P120-million advertisement contract, Tulfo maintained he has no intention of returning the money paid to Bitag Media Unlimited Inc. (BMUI) because he has done nothing illegal.
As far as Tulfo is concerned, BMUI fulfilled its contract with PTV; thus, by returning the money to the government, it would effectively extinguish his contract with the television network and would be “tantamount to saying that we did something illegal.”
He said that he was still in the process of accounting for the expenses made using the funds and was evasive when asked by reporters exactly how much BMUI was actually paid in the deal.
During the hearing, senators were in disbelief over the assertions of Tulfo and his sister, former tourism secretary Wanda Teo, that they were not aware they were actually dealing with each other in the 2017 deal now being investigated in the Office of the Ombudsman.
The COA earlier flagged the contract that triggered a controversy and led to Teo’s resignation last May 7.
“If I knew that (my brother was part of the contract), I would not have signed that contract,” Teo said in response to the questions of Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the committee.
Under the contract, the DOT tapped the services of PTV to produce advertisements and promotions on the country’s attractions that were aired on the “Kilos Pronto” program of BMUI, a blocktimer in the government station.
Teo maintained she did not know it was her brother’s media outfit that was tapped by PTV as it was only the name of the “Kilos Pronto” program that was mentioned in the contract she signed last March.
“Did you even bother finding out whether the contract was legal?” Gordon asked, noting that Teo had lawyers around her who could have advised her on the possible conflict of interest.
The former tourism chief said she was so busy with addressing the “tourism crisis” last year owing to the Marawi siege and negative travel advisories and had no time to watch television.
She claimed that she only found out about the involvement of her brother when the reports came out in media, which in turn was quoting the report of the COA.
Teo stressed it was PTV that made the proposal, including using the BMUI program, that was simply formalized by the DOT when drafting the agreement.
COA auditor Norma Aquino told the panel that out of the P120 million, some P89.87 million was paid to PTV, which in turn paid BMUI some P71.6 million. Some P20 million was retained by the government network as income, PTV president and general manager Dino Apolonio told the inquiry.
Teo said that as early as January 2017, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Martin Andanar asked her to partner with PTV for its ad placements, which he said was in line with the request of President Duterte to support the state-run network.
The agreement, according to Teo, was aboveboard and that it went through the bids and awards committee and the legal team of the DOT.
She said that it was PTV that submitted the proposal on where the ads would go to, which Apolonio confirmed.
PTV programming and airtime management group head Ramon del Rosario noted that “Kilos Pronto” was recommended as among the programs where the DOT ads would be placed.
Apolonio defended the decision to tap the program, which has among its hosts Tulfo’s brother Erwin, because Tulfo is a household name in the field of public service.
Tulfo likewise did not believe there was any conflict of interest and maintained the contract was aboveboard.
He stressed he never visited or called his elder sister as “we live our own lives” and that while they are siblings, they often do not see eye to eye.
Ben Tulfo also defended his younger brother Erwin who he said was only a co-host of the program and had no position in BMUI.
Gordon, however, was skeptical and pointed out that Tulfo may have been aware of the conflict of interest since the DOT did not directly deal with the BMUI but with PTV.
The senator said Tulfo also has a copy of the contract so he knew he was dealing with his sister.
“That’s your defense,” Gordon told Teo and Tulfo.
Tulfo said the amount paid to his firm was already spent on salaries and other expenses.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said it “stretches belief” that the siblings did not know they were dealing with each other.
“It appears there’s really a conflict of interest and a violation of the code of ethical conduct of public officials,” Hontiveros said.
Tulfo and Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV briefly argued over the contract as the senator insisted the siblings as well as other DOT and PTV officials were liable for plunder, which is non-bailable and punishable with life imprisonment.
“Try using your arguments as defense in the courts,” Trillanes told Tulfo.
Trillanes warned Apolonio to tell the truth or he could also be part of the “conspiracy” to commit plunder.
Gordon later told reporters that he believes only graft charges could be applicable since there were TV ads and promotions that came out.
Tulfo blamed some media outfits for “fake news” on the controversy and said PTV still owes BMUI some money as payment for the contract was discontinued after the COA came out with its report.
Meanwhile, Gordon said the hearing on the DOT advertisement deal is already closed and that they would proceed to the controversies involving former Tourism Promotions Board head Cesar Montano and Teo’s allegedly anomalous decision to take out some P2.5 million worth of goods from Duty Free Philippines, although the dates of the hearings were not specified.
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