Citing PH medal haul, Sotto nixes probe of SEA Games deal
Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Friday thumbed down Sen. Risa Hontiveros’ call for a full-blown investigation of alleged irregularities in the construction of sports facilities for the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games which was hosted by the Philippines.
The Senate leader echoed the sentiments of Sen. Pia Cayetano who took offense at Hontiveros’ privilege speech on Tuesday, characterizing it as a smear on the honor brought by Filipino athletes who took part in the regional sports meet.
“We garnered an unprecedented medal haul in the recent SEA Games and instead of ‘Congratulations,’ we will reward the people behind with investigations?” Sotto told reporters in a Viber message.
The Philippines was overall champion of the 30th SEA Games with a record haul of 387 medals—149 gold, 117 silver and 121 bronze.
“Let’s not do that,” Sotto said. “We have an Ombudsman anyway if [a case is] warranted. It’s the Ombudsman who will investigate. The complaint may be filed with them.”
Sotto later clarified in a message to reporters that he was not rejecting the proposed inquiry as leader of the Senate.
“Mine only,” he said in reply to a question on whether this was his personal opinion or the Senate leadership’s.
Sotto also expressed his position against the investigation in a post on Twitter, drawing some puzzled and angry reactions.
One Twitter user responded to Sotto with a reminder: “Ombudsman is another venue [but the] Senate has oversight power, too. Risa being a senator would prefer a Senate hearing for transparency.”
The Senate routinely opens inquiries on alleged irregularities and national issues “in aid of legislation” and also in the performance of its role as a government oversight body, sometimes alongside the Ombudsman, the Department of Justice and other fact-finding bodies.
Among the Senate probes opened this year are on the alleged multibillion-peso “pastillas” racket in the Bureau of Immigration, the alleged corruption in Philippine Health Insurance Corp. and the Red-tagging of activists and government critics.
The National Bureau of Investigation cited findings by the Senate pastillas inquiry in the charges it had filed against immigration officers.
Under Senate rules, an inquiry may be initiated by the chamber as a whole or by the appropriate committee, which, in this case, is the blue ribbon panel chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon.
The Inquirer has not received a response from Gordon’s office on whether his committee was inclined to launch an investigation.
In January, before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, Gordon said he was open to investigating the “lavish” government spending on the SEA Games but wanted to see the relevant documents first.
In her speech, Hontiveros raised doubts about the legality of the 2018 joint venture agreement between the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) and a Malaysian developer, MTD Capital Berhad, to construct the sports venue at the 9,450-hectare New Clark City (NCC) in Tarlac province.
She said the “fake” joint venture agreement was used by MTD, with BCDA backing, to secure a “behest loan” of P9.5 billion from a government bank in order to sidestep procurement laws to finance the construction of the sports complex for the games inside NCC in Capas and Bamban towns.
In a statement, the BCDA maintained that all transactions related to the construction of the sports facilities were “done in aboveboard and legal manner.”
But Hontiveros cited irregularities noted by the Commission on Audit and other regulatory bodies.
“Now, the country may have been left with a gigantic white elephant in Central Luzon,” Hontiveros said.
Cayetano was incensed that Hontiveros referred to the sports complex as a “white elephant.”
She admitted that she had not listened to Hontiveros’ entire speech but was offended that the senator was “tarnishing” the honor of Filipino athletes who benefited from the “world class” sports complex.
Cayetano is the sister of former Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who chairs the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc), a private foundation that managed the country’s hosting of the SEA Games.
The former Speaker was embroiled in another SEA Games controversy due to alleged irregularities in transactions entered by Phisgoc on behalf of the government, including the allegedly overpriced P50-million cauldron, which he had called a priceless “work of art.”
In October, Guillermo Iroy Jr., executive director of the Philippine Sports Commission, told a Senate panel that Phisgoc had yet to settle P387 million in services and equipment that various suppliers provided during the 11-nation sports meet.
On Wednesday, ex-Speaker Cayetano said Phisgoc was “open to investigation” of its finances.
“But we’re against witch hunts,” the Taguig lawmaker said, challenging accusers to quit their posts if they failed to prove their claims.
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