Dr. Gerry Ortega’s incessant radio commentaries against then Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes’ involvement in the alleged misuse of billions of pesos of the province’s share from the Malampaya gas project resulted in his death, fellow journalists told the Senate blue ribbon committee on Thursday.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, chairman of the Senate panel that looks into the accountability of government officials, called on the Court of Appeals (CA) after the hearing to make “the proper discernment” on the government’s appeal of its dismissal of the murder case against Reyes.
“I’d like to point out that right after [Ortega] was killed, I was told by government officials, [Puerto Princesa] Mayor [Edward] Hagedorn among them, that I might be well-advised to take security precautions,” Inquirer Palawan correspondent Redempto Anda told the committee.
Anda said he and Ortega had been working on reports about corruption attending billions of pesos worth of projects funded by royalties from the Malampaya gas project. He said Ortega had received death threats especially when their coverage started uncovering more than enough evidence.
“Several people were casing my house six, seven days after he was killed. This was in correlation with the testimony of the state witness that originally there were two journalists who were in their contract for the hit job,” Anda said.
Anda, who is also an officer of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, thanked the Inquirer for providing him with security “until now.”
Exposé on P3.9 billion
Anda said there was no other reason for the threats other than the exposé by provincial media and civil society of the misuse of P3.9 billion from the Malampaya gas project.
“My situation… I’d like to stress is a very typical situation of what threats are posed to journalists, not just to journalists, but civil society participants in Palawan who are very active in this issue [of corruption in the provincial government],” Anda said.
“I firmly believe… that this has no other reason other than the exposé on the Malampaya corruption. I was speaking with Dr. Gerry Ortega when he was under serious threat already and this was only his topic at the time,” Anda added.
Guingona suspended the hearing until the committee received documents from relevant government agencies in connection with substandard infrastructure projects, whose multibillion-peso funding was disallowed by the Commission on Audit (COA).
“We would also wait for the steps that would be taken by the COA, Ombudsman, Department of Public Works and Highways, National Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Immigration and even the Court of Appeals,” Guingona said.
Reversal of DOJ finding
He said the case was of primary importance, just like the case of the Maguindanao Ampatuan massacre. “This is a case about grave injustice done to one man, Doc Gerry, who spoke the truth,” Guingona added.
The appellate court late last year reversed the DOJ finding of probable cause to charge Reyes and his brother with murder in connection with Ortega’s murder.
The decision is now the subject of a motion for reconsideration in the appellate court.
“I challenge the justices of the CA to make the proper discernment in upholding the law and dispensing justice for everyone,” Guingona said.
The senator said the committee had so far established that Palawan’s funds were indeed misused.
“It’s clear from the testimony of [Public Works and Highways] Secretary [Rogelio] Singson that the quality of projects funded by the Malampaya funds was unacceptable,” Guingona said.
“One could also note that the projects were located in inappropriate places and that there were multiple funds and projects all in the same place,” the senator said.
Guingona said that aside from the P3.9 billion from Malampaya, there was a release of P6 billion from the Arroyo administration’s so-called State-of-the-Nation-Address (Sona) funds—or projects mentioned in the Sona in 2009.
“The COA also clearly said that the projects funded by the Malampaya funds were disallowed because of violations of the bidding process,” he said.
Guingona said pronouncements of the DPWH and the COA seemed “to give credence to the corruption using Malampaya funds as alleged by Bishop [Pedro] Arigo and other [nongovernment organizations and people’s organizations].”
Aside from establishing the relationship between Ortega’s death and the corruption in the Palawan government during Reyes’ term, Thursday’s hearing also found vulnerabilities in the system of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Bureau of Immigration (BI) regarding the travel of persons linked to crime.
“We saw holes in the DFA’s system of issuing passports and the huge one in the BI’s net in screening the coming and going of persons in the country. These were used by the suspected masterminds in the death of Doc Gerry,” Guingona said.
Reyes slipped out of the country using a fake passport.
Guingona said there also appeared to be a problem with the country’s witness protection program marked by the death of one of the witnesses in Ortega’s case who was found lifeless in a Lucena City jail.
“There are many recommendations that need to be made to improve different agencies of government after our hearings in the past three weeks,” he said.
But the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) on Thursday played down insinuations that there was foul play in the death of a key witness in the murder of Ortega.
Chief Supt. Serafin Barretto, BJMP Calabarzon director, maintained that Dennis Aranas, who served as a lookout in the January 2011 assassination of Ortega in Puerto Princesa City, committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell at the Quezon District Jail (QDJ) in Lucena City.
Supt. Annie Espinosa, QDJ warden, said an autopsy done by the National Bureau of Investigation showed that Aranas had died of “asphyxia by hanging.”
“There were no signs of bruises, hematoma or wounds on the body,” Espinosa told reporters over the phone.
Barretto had requested the Philippine National Police and the NBI to look into the death of Aranas to dispel allegations that he may have been killed, the BJMP said.
Quarrel with partner
A few days before he was found dead on Tuesday, Barretto said Aranas had a quarrel with his supposed live-in partner, a certain Cris Allen.
Barretto said it appeared that Aranas had long been estranged from his wife, Marilyn.
“His fellow inmates said (Aranas) looked depressed. According to them, Aranas learned that his girlfriend was already living with another man,” Barretto said.
“When the woman visited him (last Sunday), they had a fight. Aranas was also heard saying that he could not bear being in jail,” he added.
Asked why the jail guards did not immediately report the incident to the police, Barretto said the BJMP was not required to submit its report to the PNP “because we are not under the police.”
“There is also no basis for us to investigate. The warden should report it to the BJMP regional office. Then we will inform the police and the family. But it does not mean that the PNP was required to investigate because we have our own investigator,” he said.
But the PNP spokesperson, Chief Supt. Generoso Cerbo Jr., said the jail guards should have reported the incident to the local police as a matter of standard procedure in suicide cases.
“When the policemen arrived at the detention cell, the body was no longer there. The scene was already clean,” Cerbo told reporters.
“The BJMP has a lot of investigating to do… (on the) administrative aspects (regarding) the procedure,” he added.