COLUMN: OPINION- Bicol in the eye of the political storm – By Francisco S. Tatad

FRANCISCO S. TATAD
FRANCISCO S. TATAD

THE Dec. 22, 2018 killing of Ako Bicol party-list representative and Daraga mayoral candidate Rodel Batocabe in Daraga, Albay and the allegations of multibillion peso insertions in the public works budget for the province of Sorsogon have cast the Bicol region in the eye of a political storm. The region, which includes Albay, Camarines Sur, Camarines Norte, Masbate and Catanduanes, is no stranger to political violence and corruption, but what’s happening today seems to exceed previous levels.

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The Batocabe murder 
Batocabe had no known political enemies, so it was not easy for his family and friends to immediately point to the author of his gruesome murder. For no known reason he was deprived of his security detail a few days before, leaving only one security aide. Then his party-list colleague met Mayor Carlwyn Baldo at a public establishment. They had a short conversation. The mayor reportedly asked about Rodel. And his colleague reportedly answered, “He’s busy, preparing for the campaign.” Then the mayor reportedly said, “He shouldn’t take his campaign seriously, otherwise something might happen to him.”

Or words to that effect. The colleague apparently took it as light banter. Then on December 22, Batocabe went to barangay Burgos to attend a gift-giving activity for seniors and persons with disability. It was a joyous occasion, he had no fears, no premonitions, no extra precautions. After the gift-giving, the congressman and his aide made to board their vehicle to go home. Without any warning they were attacked by a couple of masked gunmen at close range.

Instantly, there was an attempt to blame the killing on the New People’s Army (NPA). The hit squad reportedly struck because Ako Bicol, the party, had failed to remit two percent of the cost of its projects to the NPA. This was quickly denied by the party’s NPA contacts at local, regional and national levels, who all had warm words about Batocabe. And no one bought the line in the local and national media.

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DU30 intervenes
Upon the reported urging of the ubiquitous Christopher Lawrence Bong Go, President Rodrigo Duterte came to Legazpi to pay his respects to the deceased and to announce an additional P20 million to the P30 million bounty offered by sympathetic House members for the arrest or capture of his killers. This proved to be a game-changer. The self-confessed gunman decided to give himself up and finger Mayor Baldo as the alleged mastermind of the killing. He wanted to get even with the killer who failed to pay the full price of the “contract,” and also to collect, if possible, the bounty promised by the congressmen and the President.

At press time, all the major suspects have surrendered to the authorities.

The mayor, who had protested complete innocence in his last official statement, has flown the coop. Whether he has slipped out of the country or merely sought sanctuary with the local rebels in the Bicol mountains is not known. Police sources claim Baldo has his own underworld organization engaged in illegal fishing, illegal gambling, gunrunning, and possibly illegal drug trafficking. They think he has all the native capacity to go into hiding, without risk of being exposed to his pursuers. One brother of his is the mayor of the neighboring town of Camalig, Albay.

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Mayor in hiding
As Carlwyn remains a candidate in the May 2019 elections, he will eventually have to surface and surrender to the authorities, especially if he believes he has the tiniest chance of getting reelected as mayor. He could then face the murder charges after the election. Or he could decide to drop out and be on the lam forever.

On Batocabe’s part, he could be replaced as candidate by his widow, Gertie Duran Batocabe, who is also a lawyer, or by a brother who has not been named. Either one will be the candidate to beat, given the emotional outpouring from all sectors. If the replacement candidate wins, there can be no future for the ex-mayor.

Local sources say Batocabe’s murder was not the only such case the mayor may be made to account for. According to them, there are at least two other cases, which some people were inclined to hold the mayor responsible for—the late Mayor Muñoz in 2004 and a certain Jun Villanueva in 2010. These cases were never fully investigated, but apparently remained unforgotten. After DU30 took a direct hand in solving Batocabe’s murder, interested parties are calling on DU30 to revisit the cases and lay them to rest.

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Batocabe set the pace
In fact many are hoping DU30 would pay as much attention to the killing of former Biliran congressman Glenn Chong’s security aide Richard Santillan in Cainta, Rizal, on Dec. 10, 2018. Chong is a senatorial candidate and was in Naga City when his aide was killed while driving his car. It has not been determined whether Chong was the real target of the ambush which killed Santillan and a female companion.

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Spoils for Sorsogon
The New Year opened with the House committee on rules conducting an inquiry in aid of legislation in Naga City into the allegedly questionable insertion of P213 billion worth of flood control projects in the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) budget for 2017 and 2018, and P119 billion for this year. The focus of the inquiry is on the projects earmarked and released for the province of Sorsogon. How come this province got so much more than all the others in flood control appropriations?

For 2017, Congress appropriated P70 million for the construction of Cawayan River Control Upstream in Sorsogon City; P620 million for 14 different flood control projects in various municipalities under the second district engineering office and P752,384,000 for 24 different flood control projects in 24 locations under the Sorsogon District Engineering Office. For 2018, Congress appropriated P1,195,328,000 for 34 different flood control projects under the Sorsogon Second District Engineering Office and P702 million for flood control projects in 17 different locations under the Sorsogon District Engineering Office.

For 2019, Congress appropriated P140 million for flood control projects in four different places under Sorsogon District Engineering Office; P1,029,726,000 for flood control projects in 29 different places under Sorsogon 2nd District Engineering Office; and P100 million for two flood control structure in two parts of Cadac-an river in Juban, Sorsogon.

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Diokno’s ‘in-laws’
House Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr., who chairs the hearing, together with Minority Leader Danilo Suarez, chairman of the committee on accounts, maintains that Sorsogon has received billions in DPWH projects because of Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s so-called “in-law” connection to Casiguran Mayor Edwin Hamor whose wife, Ester Hamor is the vice governor of Sorsogon province, and a candidate for mayor of Sorsogon City.

Andaya says this was because Diokno’s daughter Charlotte Justin Diokno Sicat, who teaches at the University of the Philippines, is married to Romeo Sicat Jr., a son of Mrs. Hamor by her first marriage to Romeo’s father, who has since passed.

The Hamors are referred to in the media and in the committee hearings as Diokno’s “in laws” and the projects they have won in government biddings are attributed to Diokno’s alleged intervention. There is no “smoking gun” and Diokno has denied the allegation against him. Mrs. Hamor’s children own Aremar Construction Co., which has a joint venture agreement with Mrs. Consolacion Leoncio of Sta. Maria, Bulacan who owns C. T. Leoncio Construction Corp.

According to sources familiar with the story, Edwin Hamor used to be the foreman of the Sicat construction company. When Ester lost her husband, Edwin married her. They have since become powerful politicians in their own rights. When Sen. Chiz Escudero married the screen personality, Heart Evangelista, he made Vice Governor Ester Hamor one of her “ninangs” (godmothers) at Balesin Island. Among his “ninongs” were billionaires Ramon Ang of San Miguel and Bobby Ongpin, the owner of the island.

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Where’s Chiz in all this?
It is not easy to understand why Escudero’s name has not figured at all in the discussions about the multi-billion-peso projects in Sorsogon. He is known not only as the political kingpin of Sorsogon but also as the political kingpin of Bicol. Yet the projects for Sorsogon are controlled by the vice governor of Sorsogon and the mayor of Casiguran, without any mention of the good senator. In fact, they implement the projects in the city of Sorsogon without as much as a simple notice to Mayor Sally Lee and the city government.

Mayor Hamor, who is running for reelection, is known to rival DU30 in some of his antics with women. According to some eyewitnesses, in some public gatherings, Hamor would ask a fair-looking teacher to rise from her seat, and offer her a wad of P10,000 bills, if she would kiss an attractive-looking male in the crowd. This would be met with pleas for mercy and restraint but the mayor would eventually have his way if the woman is in need. During one Bicol congress of all the clergy, the mayor reportedly asked a homosexual to put on six pairs of multicolored panties and gyrate before the bishops and 500 priests, removing his panties one by one, and throwing them to the crowd.

The first pair of panties fell in front of the Apostolic Nuncio and everyone was mortified. But the Mayor did not stop the performance. Neither did he apologize.

Whether or not Diokno inserted billions of pesos into the DPWH budget, without the knowledge or participation of DPWH Secretary Mark Villar, or whether he intervened to favor the Hamors with questionable contracts—is a legitimate point of inquiry that should be pursued in the national interest. But there are other more pressing questions which must be pursued.

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No right to investigate
On the basis of our Mount Pinatubo experience in 1991 when billions of pesos were lost to idle bulldozers claiming tons of work done in invisible dredging activities, Congress could review the performance of every flood control project not just in Sorsogon but everywhere to determine whether public money is being spent well. But this is not for the committee on rules to investigate.

The subject of the inquiry is beyond the jurisdiction or competence of the rules committee, which is limited to “all matters relating to the rules of the House, rules of procedure governing inquiries in aid of legislation, rules of procedure in impeachment proceedings, order of business, calendar of business, referral of bills, resolutions, speeches, committee reports, messages, memorials, and petitions, and the creation of committees inclusive of determining their respective jurisdictions.”`

For most of my two consecutive terms in the Senate, I served as Majority Leader and ran the floor for five Senate presidents. I have read much of the relevant parliamentary texts, from Erskine May to Jefferson to Riddicks and other authorities, but I have found nothing to make me think the chairman of the rules committee can conduct an inquiry in aid of legislation into anything that fell under the specific jurisdiction of a particular standing committee.

I don’t believe this rule has changed. Andaya should ask the appropriate House standing committees or specialized government agencies to conduct a no-nonsense audit of all our flood control projects. But the rules committee should at once cease and desist from its current inquiry, which is against the rules. In the case of Sorsogon, I believe we have the right to know why a mere vice governor and town mayor have been able to access billions of funds for flood control, while an important senator who is a member of the powerful Senate finance committee and chairman of the banks committee, has no apparent share in the distribution of the multi-billion-peso spoils.

fstatad@gmail.com

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