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The indictment by the Ombudsman of suspended governor Gwendolyn Garcia, five other provincial officials and two private individuals in connection with the purchase of the Balili estate in 2008 has been described as a double whammy for the beleaguered Garcia who is suspended for six months on orders of President Benigno Aquino III.

Garcia faces two counts of graft and one case of technical malversation or illegal use of public funds. The cases stem from three separate complaints filed by the Visayas Ombudsman, Manuel Manuel and Crisologo Saavedra in connection with the irregular purchase by the provincial government of the property owned by the Balili spouses.

The Balili estate in barangay Tinaan, Naga consists of 11 parcels of land with a total area of 249,246 square meters. At P400 per square meter, the lot was pegged at P99.69 million, of which P98,926,800 had already been paid to the owners.

The justification in buying the lot was supposedly to “provide a good opportunity for the province to develop and cater to the needs of interested investors,” an assertion that didn’t jive with the assessment of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who said that, “about 196,696 square meters of the total area of 249,246 square meters is submerged in seawater,” and “hence cannot be used for the intended purpose of developing an international seaport and attract investors, nor even for site development or housing.”

The province did not have available funds at that time, but the government still went ahead by sourcing P50 million from funds earlier earmarked for Site Development and Housing Program under Social Services.

One comments I usually hear about the dismissal by the Sandiganbayan of the case against former city mayor and Congressman Arturo Radaza of the lone district of Lapulapu and 12 other officials in connection with the 2007 lampposts controversy is, “you don’t have to be a lawyer or a judge to spot the anomaly.”

Radaza got off the hook for the time being because of the “failure” of the prosecution to submit enough evidence to prove the officials entered into contracts grossly disadvantageous to the government, in violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Gathering enough evidence is not the job of the Sandiganbayan but let us say the anti-graft court is curious to know if there’s a Manila supplier selling street lamps at close to quarter of a million per set. All he needs to do is let his fingers do the walking, canvass prices offered by Manila suppliers and in 24 hours get results. He can shop online to find out if suppliers in China sell street lamps at that price.

The purchase of the street lamps by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) in 2007 as part of the 12th Summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations needed local government units to prepare the Program of Works and Estimates (POWE). The DPWH cannot proceed with the project minus a POWE signed by local government chiefs.

Reports say a local supplier was willing to deliver 127 lamp fixtures at P11,000 per set, but the DPWH set the street lamps at P95,000 each assembly. Ultimately, the lampposts were tagged in the POWE at a whopping P224,000 per set.

The question is, why would local government officials submit a POWE that reflects an overprice of 1000 percent, and DPWH accept it without fuss? At the height of the scandal in 2007, the loudest whisper was about kickbacks amounting to P60 million and collusion among DPWH and local government officials.

In the Balili controversy, why would governor Garcia insist on buying the lot when there was no money available and most part of the lot was submerged in water? Who in his right mind would buy a submerged lot for almost P100 million?

* * *

Cebu Daily News (CDN) marks its 15th year tomorrow and each time I join CDN’s anniversary celebration, my memory always leads me to 1998, when Ms. Thea Riñen, former editor and now advertising director invited me to write for this paper. Thea and I used to swap news stories when I was working for Station dyKC in 1995. She got leads from my radio interviews while I chewed on her news stories in my radio commentaries.

I was going through some health issues then and Thea’s invitation to join the local affiliate of the Philippine Daily Inquirer as news correspondent and opinion writer was like a shot in the arm. It made me feel positive and gave me a second wind in my media profession.

The hottest news in February 1998 was the kidnapping of a scion of a rich family, a case that had the national anti-kidnapping task force then headed by Panfilo Lacson coming to Cebu to chase the kidnappers. The updates I wrote for CDN, sourced from follow ups I did while anchoring a news and public affairs program in another station invariably landed on the front page.

Nowadays, CDN is hot on the trail of very significant local political issues and I could almost feel the dynamics in the newsroom while reading the major stories. The paper’s objectivity and balance serves a public good beyond telling.

Quince na si Siloy and that’s how long I have been writing for this paper. The job keeps me on my toes and gives me a lot of psychological income. An added bonus is striking friendships in between deadlines with colleagues whom you really admire.

Siloy, you’re looking good, more than ever.

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Tags: Balili property , Cebu , Cebu Capitol , Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia , Graft

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