Duterte’s top aide to tell all on frigate deal in Senate probe
Christopher “Bong” Go, President Rodrigo Duterte’s chief executive assistant who was accused of interfering in the Navy frigate deal, wants Monday’s Senate hearing on the controversy to be open to the public because he has nothing to hide, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said on Sunday.
Roque said he and other Cabinet members would attend the hearing by the Senate committee on national defense and security, chaired by Sen. Gregorio Honasan II, as a show of support for their colleague.
Other Cabinet members expected to attend the hearing include Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II.
It will be the first hearing in the inquiry that the Senate minority has sought.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV on Sunday insisted that the issue needed to be cleared because of the perception that Mr. Duterte could be behind Go’s alleged intervention in the frigate program.
Go reportedly backed a South Korean company as supplier of the combat management system (CMS) for two frigates ordered by the Navy.
The P16-billion contract to acquire frigates for the Philippine Navy was negotiated by the administration of President Benigno Aquino III but it was signed in August 2016 under the Duterte administration.
Combat management systems
The controversy centered on the CMS to be installed on the warships.
Go allegedly took interest in the supplier of the frigates’ CMS after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gave then Navy chief Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado a document supporting Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). The document allegedly came from Go.
Mercado wrote Lorenzana about the “grossly disadvantageous” provisions allegedly inserted by HHI to ensure that it would have the right to choose the CMS provider.
In the original contract, Thales-Hanwha CMS was to be fitted into the warships to be delivered in 2020. But the partnership of Thales of the Netherlands and the South Korean manufacturer Hanwha was dissolved after the deal was signed.
The Navy had preferred Tacticos CMS by Thales Nederland, citing the disadvantages of Hanwha’s cheaper Naval Shield integrated CMS.
After telling Mercado that the document came from Go, the defense chief took back his statement. Lorenzana said he wrongly assumed that the document came from Go. Lorenzana also said Go did not intervene in the project.
But Go’s office had also sent a letter to Commodore Robert Empedrad, then head of the frigate project’s technical working group, asking him to attend a meeting in Malacañang to discuss the selection of CMS.
Mr. Duterte later sacked Mercado and appointed Empedrad as the new Navy chief.
In a statement, Roque said the hearing would be a “welcome opportunity” for Go to shed light on the matter.
Nothing to hide
“Expect Go to tell all, and as instructed by the President, he would likely demand an open and transparent Senate inquiry to show that he … has nothing to hide as he would squarely answer questions, in full view of the public,” the presidential spokesperson said.
Roque reiterated Go’s innocence, noting that the purchase of the two frigates was done by the Aquino administration.
“The whole truth would finally be known. Expect that [today’s hearing] will see that the bid to implicate Special Assistant to the President (SAP) Go was a bum steer or fake news so as to involve the administration,” Roque said.
In a radio interview, he said Go would insist on an open public hearing despite some senators saying that it should be held behind closed doors given the sensitive nature of the issue.
“SAP Go will bring only the truth. He will tell all and we have nothing to hide,” Roque said. “The crucial issue here is the mystery on the choice of Hyundai. It’s very clear in the timeline that it was the administration of President Aquino which chose Hyundai.”
Not the issue
In a separate radio interview, Trillanes slammed Roque for clouding the issue by insisting it was about the contract or the winning bidder when this, the senator said, was not the issue.
Trillanes said it was good that this matter was raised because by April, the steel-cutting process for the warships would start.
“We need to know what really happened on this frigate deal and whether the Navy approved of this and if not, why. We have to present the facts on hand so all these conjectures will be gone,” he said.
Told that Lorenzana had cleared Go of any wrongdoing, he said he understood the situation of the defense chief.
“Secretary Lorenzana is a professional. You can’t just let him take action unless it came from higher authority,” Trillanes said.
“For me, I don’t believe this is just Bong Go because Secretary Lorenzana would also not take action if this is [an order from] Bong Go … Bong Go is just the right hand man [of the President]. He will not act on his own.”
Order from the top
Asked whether he meant the order came from the President, Trillanes said that for now, that was the perception until a public hearing was called to clarify it.
He also said the hearing would be an opportunity for Mercado to clear his name and to explain why he was sacked by the President.
On talk that the hearing may end up being held behind closed doors, he said the media had already reported on the frigates.
“There is a public component here. So I will really move that this be made a public hearing. If nothing is being hidden why will it be in executive session,” Trillanes said.
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