Duterte clears SolGen on security agency deals
The Department of Justice (DOJ) will review the legality of its two contracts worth P12 million with the security agency owned by Solicitor General Jose Calida and his family, but will steer clear of the company’s multimillion-peso deals with other government offices.
In an about-face, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Wednesday that he would look into questions of validity raised about the DOJ’s contracts with Vigilant Investigative and Security Agency Inc. (Visai), two of the contracts worth at least P150 million that the company bagged after Calida was appointed solicitor general in 2016.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, defended Calida, saying in a speech to officials of the Bureau of Customs on Wednesday that he saw no reason to fire the solicitor general, as he had no participation in the operation of Visai and had already “retired” from the company.
“Don’t insist that because he is already retired, he should no longer engage in business,” the President said in Filipino. “If it’s legal, why not?”
Securities and Exchange Commission records show Calida owns 60 percent of Visai, with the rest of the shares held by his wife and their children.
A retired businesswoman, Jocelyn Marie Acosta, has brought charges of graft, malversation and misconduct in the Office of the Ombudsman against Calida for failure to divest himself of his interest in Visai.
In a statement issued on Monday, Calida said he resigned as president and chair of Visai after he was appointed solicitor general in 2016.
Calida, however, said he had not unloaded his majority holdings in Visai because, under the law, he had the option to either resign from or divest himself of his shares in the company.
But Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said resignation from the company was not enough. He said Calida should have divested himself of his interest in and not allowed Visai to go after government contracts, as it remained owned by him and his family.
Calida rejected allegations of graft and corruption, saying those who had brought up the issue just wanted to hit back at him for bringing the quo warranto petition in the Supreme Court that led to the removal of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on May 11.
Admission of guilt
But Sen. Risa Hontiveros said on Wednesday that Calida’s admission that he still owned Visai “already pointed to his guilt.”
“By saying that he has not divested himself of his majority shares [in] a family business that has snared millions of pesos worth of government contracts, Mr. Calida has virtually admitted to allegations of corrupt practices and conflict of interest. Case closed. Game over,” Hontiveros said in a statement.
Calida, Hontiveros said, violated Article VII, Section 13 of the Constitution, which prohibits high government officials from being involved in businesses that have financial dealings with the government.
She said Calida also violated the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials with his “conflict of interest” and the graft law by allowing his family-owned business to have financial dealings with the government.
Hontiveros, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Senators Bam Aquino, Francis Pangilinan, Antonio Trillanes IV and Leila de Lima filed a resolution urging the committee on civil service and government reorganization to open an inquiry into Calida’s alleged conflict of interest.
Guevarra said it was up to Calida to defend himself from questions of ethics, considering the Office of the Solicitor General is under the supervision of the DOJ.
Guevarra made the remarks to reporters in the Senate after facing a panel of the Commission on Appointments, which confirmed his appointment on Wednesday.
‘Just a presumption’
During the hearing, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who supported Guevarra’s confirmation, cautioned him not to make premature conclusions about Calida’s case, noting his earlier public statements that there was a presumption of regularity in the DOJ contracts.
In his talk with reporters, Guevarra clarified that what he said earlier was “just a presumption.”
“Which means that if there’s evidence to the contrary, or that there’s some violation of our procurement laws, then it’s something that’s worth looking into. Right, so the DOJ will be open also insofar as to review those contracts, but only insofar as the DOJ contracts are concerned,” he said.
“Now that it has been brought up, then we will take a look. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Guevarra added.
But he said the DOJ had no reason to look into Visai’s contracts with other government agencies in the absence of a complaint.
“We cannot speak of the contracts of the security agency with [the House of Representatives] or with Neda (National Economic and Development Authority), because we’re not privy to those contracts,” he said.
Guevarra said the DOJ’s primary concern was whether the procurement laws had been followed.
“Regardless of who the bidder is, if he complies with what the DOJ is looking for, that’s it, unless there are some other violations of law. But for now, the presumption is it is regular, not necessarily valid,” he said.
Guevarra suggested that there might be no “conflict of interest” in the DOJ contracting the services of Calida’s security agency.
“Let’s look at it this way: From a legal standpoint, the company and shareholder are two different persons. The corporation has a legal personality that’s distinct from the owners or shareholders … We all know that under [the] corporation law,” he said.
“We don’t consider that the one bidding was SolGen Calida. The bidder was the private company with a legal personality of its own,” Guevarra said.
“Now, if there are ethical considerations there, well, that’s for SolGen Calida to deal with. But from our point of view, we are dealing with the legitimate company,” he said. —With reports from Christine O. Avendaño, Jovic Yee and Anthony Q. Esguerra
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