De Jesus quit due to lack of Palace support
Lack of support from Malacañang on various issues was what pushed Transportation Secretary Jose “Ping” De Jesus to quit, and the disagreement over whether to relieve or reinstate suspended Land Transportation Office (LTO) head Virginia Torres was just the “last straw.”
This was disclosed to the Philippine Daily Inquirer by a source in the Department of Transportation and Communications (DoTC), who also said De Jesus had expressed his “frustration” to Malacañang several times.
The frustration appears to be shared by three senior officials who are quitting ostensibly to give De Jesus’ successor a free hand to choose his own team.
Undersecretaries Glicerio Sicat, Ruben Reinoso and Dante Velasco, all recruited by De Jesus to help implement reforms at the DoTC, said they would leave their posts on June 30, the same day their boss’ resignation takes effect.
De Jesus had cited “personal matters” and the desire to return to the private sector as the reasons behind his surprise resignation. He also said his relationship with President Benigno Aquino III and the latter’s family remained strong.
But a source who had worked closely with De Jesus said: “In general, he did not feel that the President was supportive of the direction we were taking on several issues. Maybe that’s because of the President’s advisers.”
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, said the most recent issue concerned Torres, whom Mr. Aquino had handpicked for the LTO post.
De Jesus had wanted Torres suspended to allow for a deeper inquiry by the Department of Justice into controversies involving Stradcom Corp., the information technology systems provider of the LTO.
An internal dispute involving one Bonifacio Sumbilla, who had claimed to be Stradcom’s new owner, led to a failed takeover of the company’s operations last December.
In a report, the justice department said Torres had sided with the Sumbilla faction to remove Stradcom chair Cezar Quiambao.
Torres went on a 60-day leave of absence starting in April, supposedly to give way to an investigation. The leave lapses on June 19.
At a press conference yesterday, Undersecretary Velasco said the DoTC initiated an inquiry right after Torres went on leave.
He said the department had asked the Office of the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel to assign some of its lawyers to take part in the inquiry.
“We took steps, but the help from Malacañang has not come yet,” Velasco said.
Malacañang’s purported inaction will allow Torres to return to her post without an investigation taking place.
“I think that was the last straw [for De Jesus],” the Inquirer source said.
The source said Malacañang had also been slow to resolve the ownership issues involving the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3, which was built to help ease Manila’s congested airport system.
The government earlier expropriated Naia 3 after the Supreme Court nullified the contract with the facility’s concessionaire, Philippine International Airport Terminals Co. (Piatco), and partner Fraport AG due to questionable provisions.
But before the government could officially exercise “acts of ownership” over the facility, Piatco had to be paid “just compensation” for the cost of building the airport.
Last month, the Pasay Regional Trial Court ruled that the government owed Piatco a total of $176 million. (The company is claiming $846 million.)
“We cannot move forward without a comprehensive plan from the President. Some in Malacañang want to have an amicable settlement with Piatco; some don’t,” the source said.
He added that the DOTC had not received any help from the Office of the Solicitor General in resolving the matter.
Another issue involves the privatization of the operations and maintenance of the Light Rail Transit and Metro Rail Transit lines.
The source said Malacañang wanted to privatize both train lines without considering the fact that the MRT, in particular, was already owned by private investors led by businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan.
July is the deadline for the submission of bids for the privatization project.
“[But] the government does not own the MRT line,” the source said. “The DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines) and the Landbank hold only [economic rights] over some shares of the MRT train line.”
The source also said awarding a service contract for the MRT line without first seeking private investor approval could give rise to ownership issues similar to those involving Naia 3.
“Why would we privatize the MRT if it’s already privately owned?” he said.
At yesterday’s press conference, the three resigned undersecretaries announced their plans.
Sicat, the head of the DoTC aviation group, said he would return to the private sector.
Reinoso, the head of the planning and project development sector, said he would go back to his old post as deputy director general of the National Economic and Development Authority.
Velasco said he would focus on his work as undersecretary at the Office of the President, under Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa. He said he had held this post concurrently with his job at the DoTC for the past two months.
“It’s very important to give the next transportation secretary a free hand to create his own team,” Sicat said.
Reinoso said he considered De Jesus one of the Cabinet’s “top performers,” particularly in spearheading the government’s public-private partnership infrastructure scheme.
He expressed confidence that the reforms implemented by De Jesus at the DoTC would continue even under new management.
“We are proud that the DoTC is now more transparent than it has ever been. Everything we have done in the last year has been open to the public, and we are open to scrutiny,” he said.
Aristotle Batuhan, undersecretary of the DoTC legal affairs group and the fourth official recruited by De Jesus, said he would stay at his post unless told by the President to leave.
“While I came in with Secretary De Jesus, my entry into government service under the Aquino administration is a result of my deep involvement and commitment in the 2010 campaign to elect an upright President and restore our people’s confidence in government,” Batuhan said in a text message to the Inquirer.
Batuhan added that “the last thing” De Jesus would want was “to see the department abandoned and his planned programs, which we had toiled to formulate since July 2010, wasted and unimplemented.”
Sentor Joker Arroyo said the undersecretaries’ resignations on the heels of De Jesus’ own was a “big blow” to the Aquino administration.
“There must be demoralization in the DoTC. When there’s a mass resignation of the higher echelon, it’s a big blow,” Arroyo told the Inquirer. “The effect is that the government will be bungi (a gap in the teeth). There will be slots unfilled by good people.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson said in a text message that the resignations “may be a crisis of sorts that must be addressed carefully.”
But Senators Gregorio Honasan II, Francis Pangilinan and Franklin Drilon said the resignations were an “act of decency” that would give De Jesus’ successor the leeway to pick his own team.
Honasan also said the resignations should not spell doom for the administration.
“This is a wake-up call, an opportunity for the President to appoint somebody who is of equal or higher caliber so that work in the DoTC will not be delayed,” he said. With a report from TJ Burgonio
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