Drilon accuser’s raps based on Wikipedia, ‘whispers’
MANILA, Philippines–The former Iloilo official who filed a plunder complaint against Senate President Franklin Drilon over the allegedly overpriced P700-million Iloilo Convention Center (ICC) on Thursday admitted he relied on Wikipedia and “whispers” of architects to back his claims.
Manuel Mejorada told the Senate blue ribbon committee that he had come to “unravel a complex fraudulent transaction” that led to the violation of the Government Procurement Reform Act.
Reading a prepared statement, Mejorada also alleged that the construction of the P492-million first phase of the project was overpriced.
Monitoring Drilon’s speeches and statements, the former Iloilo provincial administrator said he had observed the price of the project skyrocket from P300 million to P1 billion.
“Do we just swallow it like a bitter pill when we know fully well that government procurement reform places emphasis on reducing costs?” he told the hearing where he faced Drilon.
When confronted by senators, Mejorada said that Drilon himself had announced that the building cost P30,000 per square meter at its original price tag of P300 million.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV pointed out to Mejorada that at least in the case of the allegedly overpriced P2.28-billion Makati City Hall Building II, there was an acknowledged appraiser.
To this, Mejorada responded: “I’m an investigative journalist. I rely on public records, especially online sources.”
Asked for a round figure on the overprice, Mejorada said: “The original information that I obtained about the project which was gathered by various sources during the briefing held during the unveiling for Iloilo Convention Center, and it’s in Wikipedia, too, based on published sources, is 6,400 square meters. That’s what I used in computing that at P679 million to complete phase 1 and 2, this would reach P106,226 per square meter.”
When Trillanes asked if he could provide documents to convince the committee and the public, Mejorada said: “Because of the figures involved here, architects in Iloilo are afraid to speak out but they whispered to me.”
Otherwise, the Commission on Audit (COA) could determine if this was accurate, he said.
When Trillanes asked how much the building cost, Mejorada said: “My original information is Wikipedia.”
Had he asked for it, Mejorada would have been given the prebidding and bidding documents by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Publics Works Secretary Rogelio Singson said.
“We would have given all the information to an investigative journalist just so he would not rely on Wikipedia,” Singson said.
Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. agreed, and said: “I urge everyone, don’t use Wikipedia as an argument, because Wikipedia is a user-generated source. If one million said that apples were square, then apples will be square on Wikipedia tomorrow.”
Mejorada filed a plunder complaint against Drilon, Singson and Jimenez in the Office of the Ombudsman, alleging that the ICC was a “high-level” conspiracy engineered by Drilon “to build an avenue for corruption.”
Mejorada charged that this was funded with Drilon’s allocation from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and Malacañang’s government savings impounding mechanism, Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).
Drilon, upon Sen. Nancy Binay’s questioning, also acknowledged that the funds could have come from the DAP, but he said that at the time, the program had a presumption of regularity because it had not yet been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
In a seemingly tense moment in the proceedings, Drilon prompted Binay to ask him about his role in the funding of ICC, after the neophyte senator asked Singson if any legislator had endorsed the funding of the project.
Drilon interjected and wondered why Binay was not asking him about the matter directly.
“Why doesn’t my colleague ask me what my role [is] in funding here? Don’t beat around the bush. I’m just saying…,” he said.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III briefly suspended the hearing after Drilon’s comment. When the hearing resumed, he announced that Binay would direct her queries to Drilon.
Binay then went on to ask whether Drilon had sought funding for the project. The latter replied in the affirmative but he said he was not sure from where exactly the funds came from. He had no control over the matter, he said.
“Yes, I am proud to say that I requested funding for this project but I did not participate in any manner in the bidding, in the choice of the contractor, in supplying the materials for this project,” he said.
Letter to Aquino
When Binay asked how much funds Drilon had sought in his letter request to President Aquino, Drilon said he could not recall and questioned Binay’s query.
“What is the materiality of the question?” Drilon said. “The issue here is the overprice. There has been no proof presented.”
He added that what was important was whether there were any public funds that were pocketed.
“Is there evidence that someone made money? We’ve been meeting here for three hours but I haven’t heard how the money was stolen. Only conclusions from Wikipedia,” he said.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed Resolution No. 906 seeking an inquiry into alleged anomalous transactions between Hilmarc’s Construction Corp. and local government units, including ICC.
For Apec summit
ICC is being built inside Megaworld Corp.’s P25-billion Iloilo Business Park in Iloilo City for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in September next year.
The state-of-the-art convention center—venue of senior ministerial meetings in the Apec summit—will rise between Megaworld’s posh hotels, Richmonde Hotel and Marriott Courtyard Hotel.
By donating 17,371 sqm worth P521 million as a site for ICC, Megaworld expected commercial benefit, project proponent Drilon said.
Drilon said he broached the idea of building a convention center with Megaworld president Andrew Tan right inside the Megaworld complex. Tan agreed by donating the site.
The Senate President requested a budget for the construction of the project from the Department of Budget and Management, but stayed away from the bidding.
Otherwise, Singson and Jimenez dismissed allegations by Mejorada that ICC was overpriced and violated rules on bidding. They swore no lawmaker or official approached them to intervene in any part of the project.
Mejorada admitted he had no evidence of “conspiracy” among government officials.
“That’s correct. There was commercial benefit,” Drilon, who ended up fielding questions from colleagues, told the committee.
After the hearing, Jimenez said this was a given since “Megaworld is a business.” But he said that the government had never been put at a disadvantage.
At the hearing, Sen. Sergio Osmeña III tried to elicit responses from Drilon, Singson and Jimenez that Megaworld benefited from the project.
Addressing Drilon, Osmeña asked if Tan would have paid for the convention center. Drilon replied: “I could not speculate on that matter.”
“Megaworld has a master plan and I would suppose that the Department of Tourism checked out this plan in order to make sure that the convention center would be in conformity with the master plan of Megaworld,” Osmeña said.
“As a matter of fact, it could have been Megaworld that decided where to put the convention center,” he added.
At this point, Jimenez responded by saying that the relationship was “almost perfectly symbiotic, synergistic.”
“Because as I have pointed out earlier, the formula for a successful convention center, if you took the convention center’s point of view, is proximate or serviced by large, meaningful hospitality or hotel facilities,” he said.
Jimenez said the vision of a convention center was “born when people realized that there was this opportunity.”
A business processing outsourcing structure would have easily risen on the site. But on the suggestion of Iloilo leaders, led by Drilon, everyone agreed that a convention facility for the site would be ideal, the tourism secretary said.
Between two hotels
Jimenez noted that ICC was located between the Richmonde and Marriott hotels.
On Osmeña’s questioning, Jimenez admitted that the donation of the property came with the architectural and engineering design of ICC by W.V. Coscolluela and Associates.
“The donation came with the plan,” he said.
Osmeña pressed further by asking if acceptance of the donation of the property was conditioned on the acceptance of the donation of the design. Drilon attempted to butt in but Osmeña told him to allow him to finish his questions.
But which came first, the donation or plan?
Jimenez said the donation came first. He proceeded to read from the agreement on the donation, said: “… To ensure consistency with the overall design of the surrounding area, the donee shall use the proposed conceptual design of the convention center.”
Part of Megaworld plan
Hearing this, Osmeña concluded that the donation was conditioned on the acceptance of Megaworld’s master plan. Jimenez confirmed this.
“Nothing wrong with that. We just want to get it right,” the senator said.
Singson strongly denied he benefited from the project. Before accepting his present post, he said he was “fairly well compensated” as president and CEO of Maynilad Water Services Inc.
“I didn’t accept this job to enrich myself, steal, enjoy life or play politics,” he told the committee. “If our accuser proves that I benefited a single peso from the project, I’m ready to resign immediately.”
The public works secretary said ICC was a convention center, and not a “typical office building.” Unlike a typical floor of regular buildings, which is 3 meters high, the main convention hall is 12 meters high; the lobby is 14.6 meters high and the backroom office is 6 meters high, according to Singson.
Through a PowerPoint presentation, Singson said the donated lot was 1.7 hectares and the building footprint was 80 by 76 meters. The total floor area was 11,693.79 sqm, not 6,000 sqm.
The roof deck had been designed to take on two more floors and hence, it was a regular roof deck, he said.
There are instances when infrastructure projects of the private sector could cost less than government projects because of the different procurement process, according to Singson.
Singson made the statement after Osmeña wondered about the different per square meter cost between ICC and a commercial building like Mall of Asia Arena, which, like the convention center, also has a big distance between the floor and ceiling.
MOA’s lower cost
Osmeña noted that the MOA arena had cost about P30,000 to P40,000 per sqm. The first phase of the ICC cost P42,000 per sqm.
Singson said that in procuring, for instance, the electro-mechanical components of a building, such as elevators and air-conditioners, the government would estimate the costs based on the market price.
But big developers with multiple projects could get these items at a lower price, he said.
“But if Megaworld or SM will, for example, procure that, with all of the procurement that they do in all of their other buildings, they can definitely bring down the cost of these major items to easily 25 percent,” he said.
With such discounts, the private sector could bring down the cost of a private commercial building by 15 to 20 percent, he said.
Overdesign or overprice
Jimenez defended his department’s decision to keep the original roof deck design of ICC.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III raised this issue after noting that the DPWH, in trying to bring down the cost of the project, adopted value engineering to tweak the structural aspect of ICC.
Even with changes to the structural or foundation plan, it was still enough to support the addition of two floors to the roof deck.
Pimentel said the cost of the ICC project could have been further reduced by abandoning the plan to construct two more floors and changing the plan for the roof deck.
He said that to him, it made sense to value engineer or tweak the plans for both the structure and roof deck if the aim was to bring down the cost of the project.
Pimentel also said he raised the point about the roof deck design because if the two extra floors were not built, it might be seen as an overdesign or an overprice.
Singson said there were limits to what the DPWH could value engineer, and the roof deck was not among those it could touch as the department was tasked with following the design given by the owner.
Jimenez said the roof deck design was maintained because he thought the architect wanted to have an option for expansion.
“This can’t be compared to a regular office building,” he said.