COA gets whiff of P2.5-B corruption
The Commission of Audit (COA) has uncovered about P2.5 billion in questionable transactions by the Department of Tourism (DOT) under former Secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo, including the advertising contract given by her office to her brother’s media company.
For the first time since April when it flagged the DOT contract between state-run People’s Television (PTV) and Bitag Media Unlimited Inc., whose chief executive officer is Ben Tulfo, Teo’s brother, COA found the resigned tourism secretary possibly liable for graft.
The COA report, released on Wednesday, also found that the DOT had actually entered into a P120-million deal to place advertisements in PTV, of which P89.88 million, or 75 percent, was supposed to go to Bitag’s “Kilos Pronto” program. The remainder was meant for other PTV shows.
A report in April by the government’s auditing agency on PTV operations said P60 million had already been paid to Bitag.
“Considering that the DOT secretary and the producer of Kilos Pronto are siblings, there is a possible conflict of interest which may be a violation of Section 3(e) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act,” according to Wednesday’s COA report.
‘Notice of disallowance’
The COA on June 5 issued a “notice of disallowance” for the payment, which meant that Bitag Media must return the P60 million paid to it to the government.
In a statement, Teo said her conscience was clear.
“I am confident that during my stint as department secretary, I did not commit or knowingly allow any violation of the antigraft law, or any other law for that matter,” said Teo, who resigned in May.
“In any event, I shall answer these allegations in the proper forum. God bless the Philippines,” she added.
The P2.5 billion in questionable expenditures included P847.21 million spent for the DOT’s market and product development projects that lacked specific indicators that could be used to measure their success, the COA said.
Auditors likewise flagged the lack of monitoring of the projects of 12 foreign Philippine tourism offices that received P605.26 million in cash advances.
It said the desired impact of another P428.82 million worth of Bottom-Up Budgeting projects could not be assured due to deficient planning and inadequate validation and documentation, the COA said.
It also questioned the lack of supporting documents for the payment of P271.72 million to McCann Worldgroup Philippines Inc., the contractor for the DOT’s “Experience the Philippines” campaign.
McCann, the COA said, did not provide the required documents to support the transaction, including a comprehensive international media plan, the implementation strategy, success metrics, timelines, proof of production and cost estimates.
The other questioned expenses include the unregulated grant of P19.29 million in travel allowances to 94 DOT employees (including Teo) and P19.55 million in sponsorships for nongovernment organizations.
The COA said there were no guidelines regarding what constituted a valid trip or sponsorship.
It said Teo received P863,951.95 in allowances for her trips to Berlin, South Korea, Istanbul, Singapore and Bangkok in 2017.
Former Tourism Undersecretaries Rolando Cañizal, Benito Bengzon Jr., Falconi Millar, Katherine de Castro and Alma Rita Jimenez also received cash advances. The biggest amounts went to Cañizal (P1.59 million) and Bengzon (P1.04 million).
The COA said the lack of specific guidelines on foreign travels exposed the government to “risks of incurring expenditures for excessive and extravagant travels abroad.”
The COA report on the P120-million PTV-DOT contract noted that the tourism department released the payments to the government network without the required accomplishment reports, scheduling reports and proof of broadcast.
Auditors also found that PTV aired the DOT commercials and segments fewer times than what was agreed.
The COA also questioned the choice of PTV, saying its “low viewership … could defeat the purpose of increased tourism awareness.”
But the DOT personnel involved in the deals defended its decision because the costs were “reasonable” and “economic” as PTV’s rates were three times lower than ABS-CBN and GMA, the country’s largest TV networks with the most viewers.
The DOT personnel also insisted there was no conflict of interest because, technically, Bitag Media was not a party to the DOT-PTV agreement.
‘Return the money’
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said he expected the Tulfo company to return the money to the government as stated by their lawyer, Ferdinand Topacio.
“They are the ones who said they will return it … They said and we expect them to comply with what they said,” Roque said.
Inquirer columnist Ramon Tulfo, however, denied that his brother, Ben, had committed to return the money to the government and that Topacio was only talking for himself.
Malacañang also expects the Office of the Ombudsman to act on the COA report.
“The Ombudsman takes a while, but eventually they will file. We’re confident that the Ombudsman will eventually perform and discharge its constitutional duty, and charge those who are responsible if there’s sufficient evidence,” Roque said. —WITH A REPORT FROM JULIE M. AURELIO
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