This time, it’s the Tulfos who are taken to task by senators
Former Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo and her brothers, Ben and Erwin, were told point-blank that there was conflict of interest in an advertising deal for which Ben’s media outfit earned P75.8 million from the Department of Tourism (DOT) last year.
“Dura lex sed lex (The law is harsh, but it is the law). You have conflict of interest. That’s something you cannot avoid,” said Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate blue ribbon committee, during a panel hearing on Tuesday on the P120-million contract to air tourism ads on the government-run People’s Television Network (PTV).
“It cannot be divorced that you know your sister is DOT secretary,” Gordon, a former tourism secretary, said in response to Ben’s defiant assertion that the deal with his Bitag Media Unlimited Inc. was aboveboard.
“I never asked for favors. I never asked for commercials. I don’t know where her office is. I only knew that DOT is in Luneta. There was no one who went to the office of Mrs. Teo. How would we have any interest here?” Ben said.
“There was no conflict of interest,” he argued. “We don’t even have a contract with the DOT.”
He also refused to return the money to the government, saying that “would be tantamount to admitting that the contract was illegal.”
Liable for plunder
Opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said the siblings were liable for plunder, taunting them by reading aloud its legal definition “for the benefit of the Tulfos” and noting the severe penalties for violating the law.
“We have no death penalty so you’re lucky,” Trillanes said.
He also mocked the Tulfos, saying they had been caught in their own “bitag,” which is a Filipino word for “trap.”
Teo indicated she committed no wrongdoing as the Office of the Ombudsman had not taken any action against her besides starting a fact-finding investigation, but Trillanes dismissed her statement.
“If that’s how you spent the advertising funds… how much more with your discretionary funds. It gives us a glimpse of how reckless you were in disbursing funds,” he said.
The Senate panel learned that Bitag Media earned not only P60 million as earlier reported but nearly P76 million for the tourism ads the latter aired on its “Kilos Pronto” show on PTV.
The public service program is hosted by Ben, Erwin and another anchor, Alex Santos.
Although Erwin is only a “talent” on the show, he is still a brother of the former tourism secretary, Trillanes said.
All told, Bitag Media was supposed to get P89.88 million, or 75 percent of the contract price, with the rest going to PTV, according to the Commission on Audit (COA).
The last tranche of P24.4 million, however, was not released as a result of the notice of disallowance issued by the COA.
The hearing also highlighted inconsistencies regarding who decided to place DOT ads in the show with Teo and PTV executives pointing fingers at each other.
Teo reiterated her previous claims that she was unaware that Ben was connected with Kilos Pronto as she was only familiar with his “Bitag” program.
She said it was PTV that proposed placing DOT ads in that show.
DOT draft contract
But PTV general manager Dino Apolonio and PTV programming and airtime management head Ramon del Rosario both said it was the DOT that submitted a draft of the contract, which specified that the ads be aired by Kilos Pronto.
The two network executives later changed their tune, saying it was PTV that decided on Kilos Pronto.
Ben said it was his sister’s former lawyer, Ferdinand Topacio, who proposed returning the money as a gesture of goodwill during a phone conversation, but he said he never agreed as he wanted to consult his own counsel.
“He used the key words, ‘goodwill’ . . . and ‘your name,’ ‘honor,’ ‘integrity,’ and then I told him, ‘Would that extinguish my contract with PTV?’” he recalled.
Teo had a different story, saying Ben initially was open to the idea. “He said he would see whether he could come up with the money as he had already spent it,” she said.
Asked if she thought Ben should return the money, Teo said: “No.”
“At the end of the day it’s still up to PTV 4 and my brother whether to return it,” she said.
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