The politics of Malampaya funds
GARBED in a new yellow shirt that read “DETAINEE,” a smiling Joel T. Reyes, former Palawan governor and now a jailed murder suspect, describes his ordeal as “a comic book.”
“Those stories have their beginnings and endings. I want to put a period to mine. Let’s end this. Punish those who should be punished. But set free those who should be freed,” he said upon his commitment to the Puerto Princesa City Jail in Palawan province on Friday.
His statement was a refrain to the adamant claim he had issued before slipping out of the country three years ago that he was merely “fleeing from the injustice of being wrongly accused.”
His eyes welled as he narrated his meeting with his wife and four children at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila following his and his brother Mario’s extradition from Thailand. They were said to have not seen each other for close to four years, as they were in hiding.
Reyes and his brother, a former mayor in their hometown of Coron in northern Palawan have been accused by the family of murdered journalist Gerry Ortega, the former governor’s most vocal critic on radio, as the masterminds. Both were arrested by the Thai Royal Police in the tourist island of Phuket, Thailand, where they reportedly spent most of their time as fugitives.
Reyes’ ascent to the high stakes game of Palawan politics may be the most remarkable among the stories of the elite group of players involved.
Rise and fall
Born in 1952 to a middle class family in Coron, he spent his childhood and teen days in the town largely isolated from the rest of the country due to limited air or sea transportation.
A law school dropout at Far Eastern University in Manila, Reyes left Coron after his name was dragged in the death of a companion during a hunting trip, which police reported as an accident. He settled in the United States where he, along with Mario, worked odd jobs, mainly as a bartender in Los Angeles, California.
“In high school, we never thought he would be the one to succeed. He didn’t excel academically. But he has a gift of gab and the looks of a movie actor,”
a classmate, who asked not to be named, told the
One of his early mentors in politics, who is also from Coron, described him as “a keen player.”
Under Mitra’s wings
“I was the one who first introduced him to Palawan politics by urging him to run as board member after the Edsa Revolution,” Art Ventura told the Inquirer. Ventura once served as acting vice governor of Palawan when he was appointed by the revolutionary government of Cory Aquino in 1986.
Reyes pursued a political career with a steep upward trajectory, consistently topping the provincial board elections before becoming vice governor in the early 1990s as a protégé of then Speaker Ramon Mitra. Throughout most of his term, he was politically at odds with the incumbent governor, Salvador P. Socrates, who was perceived in local politics as Mitra’s key rival for influence in the province.
Socrates died in a plane crash in 2002, catapulting Reyes to the governorship. It was a time when natural gas was newly discovered in the Camago Malampaya basin by a consortium led by Shell Philippines Exploration and prospects of Palawan reaping a bountiful share of royalty preoccupied the provincial political leadership.
The discovery of the Malampaya natural gas and the potential future exploitation of other energy prospects in the West Philippine Sea which the island province straddles promised a boon for Palawan. The Local Government Code provides for a 40 percent royalty share of local government units where natural wealth is discovered, promising to end Palawan’s dependence on regular internal revenue allocation of only about P1 billion yearly.
Socrates was at odds with other provincial political leaders over how Palawan’s royalty share should be utilized. The province’s two congressmen wanted the funds split three ways to finance projects identified by each congressional district and the provincial administration.
Reyes, then the vice governor, was a casual bystander in the tug-of-war between the governor and the two congressmen, Vicente Sandoval (first district) and Alfredo Abueg (second district). Before the matter was internally resolved, however, Malacañang took a position denying Palawan’s share from Malampaya, claiming that the offshore gas deposit is outside of its administrative jurisdiction.
When Reyes took over from Socrates as governor, he initiated the filing of a “declaratory relief” petition before the Supreme Court to challenge the stand of the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“I was the first governor in the Philippines who stood up against Malacañang to assert our ownership of Malampaya. We won in the Regional Trial Court,” he said during his press conference on Friday. But he also opened a separate track of negotiations for the transfer of some money to Palawan via a “provisional interim agreement.”
Unlike Socrates, Reyes rallied the rest of Palawan’s political leaders by agreeing to split the funds into three nearly equal amounts and placing it under the control of the province’s two congressmen and himself—an arrangement that was strongly opposed by his predecessor.
Ortega was main critic
The Malampaya project benefited Palawan with a windfall revenue of some P4 billion in 2008. It was supposed to be the first remittance under Executive Order No. 386 signed by then President Arroyo, with the arrangement to continue until the Supreme Court finally decides on the petition.
Reyes was one of Ortega’s main targets in his daily radio commentary “Ramatak.” Ortega accused him of converting Malampaya funds to “pork barrel” and questioned the projects it funded. Out of the share placed under the provincial government’s control amounting to over P900 million, over half went to a land reclamation project in Coron Bay, a project that was audited by the Commission on Audit (COA) as having violated contracting procedures.
In 2013, the COA issued a notice of disallowance on most of the Malampaya-funded projects and recommended the filing of graft charges against Reyes and key provincial government officials. That same year, the Senate blue ribbon committee concluded that Ortega’s death might have a link to his exposé on Palawan’s misuse of Malampaya funds.
In May 2010, less than a year before Ortega was gunned down, Reyes suffered his first political defeat at the hands of Dennis Socrates, son of the former governor, for congressman of the province’s second district.
But he managed to retain much of his political base even while it was weighed down by the murder. His wife, Clara, was vice governor to his political ally, Abraham Mitra, in most of the time he was in hiding.
Hiding in the hearts
Before fleeing the country, Reyes issued a statement to his supporters who spread it to social media, saying he would be hiding “in the hearts of the Palaweños” and that he would come out “at the right time.”
Much of the speculation on how the Reyes brothers managed to elude capture for over three years is about their supposed financial resources. His official net worth does not support the speculations.
When he joined Palawan politics in 1993, he declared a net worth of P600,000 and payable debts amounting to over P100,000. According to the last statement of assets, liabilities and net worth he filed with the Department of the Interior and Local Government in 2009, his net worth was P8 million.
Reyes now says he is broke.
“Wala akong pera sa bulsa (I have no money in my pocket). When we arrived in the country, most of what we have we gave away to the inmates (in Bangkok where they were initially detained,” he said.
His supporters, through social media, are encouraging him to run against incumbent Gov. Jose Chaves Alvarez.
Asked whether he intends to file his certificate of candidacy, Reyes made an oblique reply: “I don’t want to connect my surrender to Palawan politics. That is divisive, and I only want to be an instrument of unity here in our province.”
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