Multiple pay

COA bares N. Vizcaya fund ‘scam’

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–The Commission on Audit has chided the provincial government here over the alleged illegal granting of honorarium and incentives to officials, which has bled government coffers some P4.6 million in the past two years.

In its 2006 audit report, the COA noted that provincial officials continued to illegally award themselves monthly allowances and other benefits despite earlier warning to stop the practice.

Records revealed that officials and employees who comprise the province’s bids and awards committee (BAC), local finance committee (LFC) and the provincial school board (PSB), have been illegally receiving additional monthly honorarium and “year-end performance incentives” since 2005.

Virgilio Mapalad, COA audit team leader, said the provincial government should stop the payments and compel the recipients to refund the amounts they have received, reiterating its recommendation in its 2005 report.

The questioned payments were issue notices of disallowance, but these were apparently ignored and the illegal practice continued, the report said.

In 2006, the unauthorized payments of honoraria reached P2.2 million, while 2.4 million was spent for the same purpose in the preceding year.

The 2005 report was the basis of Board Member Patricio Dumlao Jr. in filing graft charges against 40 officials and employees who received P10,000 and P5,000 as “extra bonus”. The case remains pending before the Office of the Ombudsman, sources said.

Three takes

Audit documents showed that illegally-paid honoraria and bonuses were given to practically the same group of officials who manage the finances of the provincial government.

Three chiefs of offices–provincial treasurer Perfecto Martinez Jr., then provincial administrator Epifanio Galima Jr. and personnel office chief Maria Carla Torralba–thrice received their honoraria and yearend bonuses as members of the LFC, BAC and PSB, documents showed.

This is aside from their salaries and the P30,000 “cash gift” that was given to all provincial employees in December 2006.

Eight other officials, mostly chiefs of offices, twice received additional honorarium and incentives for their membership in two bodies, likewise aside from their regular pay and the P30,000 bonus.

Mapalad said the granting of fixed monthly honoraria to BAC and its technical working group (TWG), amounting to P1.3 million, was in violation of a budget circular that allows such grant only for every successful transaction completed by the BAC through competitive bidding.

In 2006, LFC members likewise illegally received a total of P337,800 in honoraria and bonuses, which was based on a “misplaced” application of a circular from the Department of Budget and Management, the COA said.

The payment of honoraria under this order, it was learned, is allowed only as compensation for a special project which required tasks beyond the employees’ regular functions, and should be undertaken has a time frame of at least a month.

No pay

The granting of additional compensation to the 10-member PSB and its TWG, totaling P450,000 was likewise made “without legal basis”, the report added.

Under the Local Government Code, officers and members of local school boards “shall perform their duties as such without compensation or remuneration”.

According to the report, the amount spent for the PSB’s unauthorized honorarium was illegally drawn from the special education fund (SEF) which is mainly intended for the construction, repair and upkeep of public schools, printing of textbooks or payment of teachers’ salaries.

This writer tried but failed to reach Gov. Luisa Cuaresma for comment. Trifena Abad, her secretary, said the governor is in Manila for an official business.

But provincial treasurer Martinez, also LFC chair, said the provincial government still has an option to respond to the COA report and justify the payments questioned therein.

“(Giving of honoraria) has been the practice even in the past administrations. I am surprised why it is only now that the COA came up with these observations,” he said.

Martinez said the COA never issued any notice of disallowance for the payment of honoraria in 2005.

Advertisements

Capitol in the dark

Quirino capitol loses power over P8M debt

CABARROGUIS, Quirino–Power supply at the provincial capitol on Thursday was cut off due to the failure of the provincial government to settle more than P8 million unpaid bills, officials of the local cooperative here.

Lawyer Eleazar Balderas, legal counsel of Quirino Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Quirelco), said power supply to government buildings in Barangay Capitol Hills here has been disconnected after the province failed to comply with the cooperative’s long-standing demand for payment.

Three provincial government-run hospitals–the Quirino Provincial Hospital here, and the district hospitals in Aglipay and Maddela towns–were, however, spared.

Balderas said the Quirelco board ordered to cut the power off after the provincial government did not abide by the agreement they had with Quirelco last year that it would pay the cooperative P500,000 monthly until the balance is fully settled.

“The refusal of the provincial government to settle its obligation is causing great loss on the cooperative. We are constrained to resort to this measure because if we will not do this, the whole province of Quirino will be without power very soon,” he said.

The National Power Corp. has threatened to cut off Quirino’s power supply if the cooperative failed to pay its power bills, Balderas added.

The controversy revived the conflict between the provincial government and the cooperative last year, which began when Quirelco cut off electricity at the capitol over unpaid bills amounting to P6 million.

Power was restored two weeks later after then Gov. Pedro Bacani ordered the payment of P1.4 million to Quirelco, and entered into a settlement that the province would pay the cooperative P500,000 monthly.

Moot

It was learned that Thursday’s power outage came barely 30 minutes before Quirelco officials received a copy of the temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by Executive Judge Moises Pardo of the Regional Trial Court here prohibiting them from cutting off the capitol’s power supply.

“The TRO became moot and academic because what was intended to be restrained already happened,” Balderas said.

This prompted the provincial government, through lawyer Roldan Ubando, to amend its petition to one that asked the court to order Quirelco to restore power to its offices. The amended petition was granted by the court on Friday afternoon.

Still, Quirelco did not comply with the court order because its issuance was “highly irregular because we we’re deprived of procedural due process”, Balderas said.

“Our office received the summons two hours before the scheduled hearing. The judge issued the order supposedly due to our absence,” he said.

Contacted for comment, Gov. Dakila Carlo Cua assailed disconnection of power as “politically motivated”.

“Although these debts were inherited by my administration from the previous one, I, as the new governor, nevertheless assured (Quirelco officials) that my administration will settle these obligations,” Cua said.

He said the provincial government was looking at entering into a compromise with Quirelco so that the P8-million unpaid bills will be offset by the estimated P13 million in taxes that the cooperative owed the province.

Cua said he issued a manager’s check for P500,000 on Thursday morning, in an effort to avert the imminent power loss at the capitol. However, the Quirelco collection office reportedly refused the payment for undisclosed reasons.

“This is grave injustice committed against our people. (Quirelco officials) should be held liable for the damages,” Cua said, citing the failure of the provincial government to inform the public about the extended period of registration for the Sangguniang Kabataan.

Tribes get bolder

TRIBES’ PEOPLE POWER

Court order won’t stop tribes’ fight vs mining firm

KASIBU, Nueva Vizcaya–Opposition against the planned mining exploration in a village continued to grow as tribal residents from six villages here trooped to the site of a road blockade to prevent the entry of a mining firm in their community.

On Wednesday, more than 400 villagers belonging to different tribes here stood guard at the road entrance to Pao village here, despite a court order that prohibited their leaders from blocking the passage of equipment and construction materials of Oxiana Phils. Inc. (OPI) to the site of exploration.

Villagers, who declined to be named for fear of being cited in contempt by the court, said more people proceeded to the barricade site upon learning that their three village chiefs and 22 others have been barred by the court from joining the road blockade.

For the second week, men, women and teenagers set up makeshift tents on top of a ridge, surrounding a boom laid across the road, and was raised and lowered every time vehicles passed by. A wooden sign was nailed to the boom that said: “No to exploration; No to mining”.

The protesters would swarm towards the barricade whenever they heard the engine of an ascending vehicle. They would however, return to their posts after they are signaled that the vehicle is not from OPI.

“We are not here to sow violence, but only to voice our sentiments that we do not want mining in our community,” an Ibaloi farmer said in the dialect.

Since Monday’s issuance of the TRO, however, no one from among the 22 respondents have since showed up at the barricade site, it was learned.

“We were told that policemen would handcuff us immediately if one of us showed up at the site,” said Benito Cudiam, one of the respondents.

Acting on the complaint of OPI, Judge Jose Godofredo Naui of the Regional Trial Court branch 37 on Monday issued a 20-day temporary restraining order (TRO) against 22 respondents, who were identified in the complaint as having led the road blockade since July 12.

Unfazed

Tension here grew when villagers saw a team of troops from the local police and the provincial mobile group arrived at the area on Wednesday afternoon and set up camp in one of the houses in Paquet, about 200 meters from the barricade site.

But the villagers, composed of Bugkalot, Ibaloi, Kalanguya and Ifugao farmers, said they will block the entry of the company “whatever the consequences may be.”

“We are not violent people. We just want to be respected. If violence will erupt, you can be assured that it did not start from our group,” another Bugkalot farmer from Pao added.

“We do not want the promise of a better life that the mining company is using to convince us. We do not want to lose the fertile lands that we till (because) it is the only wealth that we have,” said another vegetable farmer from Kakiduguen.

The villagers and other environment groups have been questioning the issuance of the company’s exploration permit, which, documents showed, was given in 2003 and was never renewed but was extended twice for a total period of about four additional years.

The Mining Act of 1995 states that exploration permits shall only last for two years, and shall be allowed to three renewals.

They also assailed the company for supposedly failing to disclose that OPI has been sold to Royalco Resources Limited, an Australian firm, in June 2006.

This writer tried to reach Lourdes Dolinen, OPI representative, but she declined to give comment. In an earlier interview, however, she laughed off allegations that OPI no longer existed as a legitimate company.

Engineer Jerrysal Mangaoang, Cagayan Valley director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, said he granted the extension periods to the company due to its failure to previously use the permit because of “force majeure”.

Mining ‘hoax’ hit

Tribes slam granting of exploration permit to ‘bogus’ firm

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–Tribal leaders and environment groups on Monday assailed the alleged anomalous issuance of a permit to a foreign company that is aiming to conduct mining exploration activities in several villages in upland Kasibu town, about 40 km from here.

Kalanguya, Ifugao and Bugkalot villagers from Pao, Paquet, Kakiduguen, and Dine villages in Kasibu condemned the alleged deceit committed by Oxiana Philippines, Inc. (OPI), an Australian-owned company, which, documents showed, no longer existed.

The group, led by their village chiefs, aired their dismay after they were shown documents stating that OPI was granted another 20-month extension of its exploration permit by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

“How come that a company that was already sold and no longer existed was given a new extension of its permit that already expired? This is really revolting,” said Felimon Blanco, Paquet village chief.

Since July 12, Blanco, together with village chiefs Mariano Maddela and Alejo Tuguinay of Pao and Kakidugen, respectively, have led their people in barricading the road in Pao to prevent the entry of OPI’s equipment and construction materials into the site.

The villagers have been questioning the 20-month extension granted to OPI’s exploration permit, covering June 28, 2007 to February 27, 2009. The permit was originally issued on June 2, 2003, government records showed.

They said they will never allow the entry of mining into their villages, preferring vegetable farming and agro-forestry as a “more sustainable, yet less destructive” source of livelihood.

Volunteers from the Dapon Indigenous People’s Center, Inc., citing official company documents, revealed that OPI was sold on June 20, 2006 to Royalco Resources Limited, also an Australian firm.

In its 2006 half-year report, Oxiana Limited declared that it has disposed of OPI, its Philippine subsidiary, to Royalco Resources Limited, an entity listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Royalco bought OPI in exchange for 10 million corporate shares, generating a net profit of US$3.17 million for the Oxiana Group, the document said.

“Oxiana Philippines Inc. constituted a separate geographical segment of the Oxiana Group’s operations. The sale of this geographical segment of the consolidated entity’s operations has been reported in this financial report as a discontinued operation,” the report added.

The online company search of the Securities and Exchange Commission indicated that OPI was not registered with the government, according to Bernabe Almirol, a convenor of Dapon.

But the group suffered a setback on Monday after Judge Jose Godofredo Naui of Regional Trial Court branch 37 granted OPI’s plea and issued a 20-day temporary restraining order that prohibited 22 villagers identified in the complaint from setting up the blockade at the road leading to the exploration site in Pao.

The judge ruled not accept as evidence the OPI documents, as these were downloaded from the internet and were supposedly not authenticated.

Sought for comment, Lourdes Dolinen, OPI representative, denied the allegations, and maintained that their company is legitimate.

“How can we conduct all these activities when we do not have the support of the company? Where do you think do the funds for our operations and salaries come from?” she asked.

Lawyer Virgil Castro, counsel for OPI, said they will come out with the documents proving the legitimacy of the company in the next hearing of the injunction suit.

MGB officials were at a quandary whether or not OPI continued to exist as a legitimate company.

“I am not sure about the mode of transfer (of mining rights) but what I know is that (OPI) has been absorbed by Royalco. As far as our office is concerned, we are dealing with Oxiana,” said Jerrysal Mangaoang, MGB regional director for Cagayan Valley.

Mining firm repulsed

Tribal folk block mining firm’s entry in N. Vizcaya

BAMBANG, Nueva Vizcaya–Members of tribal communities from three upland villages in Kasibu town on Saturday fortified barricades to prevent the entry of equipment and building materials that were to be used for an Australian firm’s exploration activities in the area.

About 80 villagers, composed of bolo-wielding local officials and menfolk, have blocked the road leading to a mine site in remote Pao village, and vowed to stop the operations of Oxiana Philippines, Inc.

“We just want to show proof that mining in our village is not acceptable to our people, contrary to what the company and some quarters in the government are claiming,” Mariano Maddela, village chief of Pao, said in the dialect.

Since July 12, groups of about 25 men have reportedly been holding shifts in guarding the road entrance leading to the site in Pao, which is part of 5,873-hectare area covered by an exploration permit granted to Oxiana.

The exploration site, which straddles the Mamparang mountain range, is within an ancestral land applied for by the Bugkalot of eastern Nueva Vizcaya.

“They can use force against us, but we will stand our ground,” said Maddela, a Bugkalot.

Volunteers from the Dapon Indigenous Peoples Center, Inc., a non-government organization, said the group expressed ire over the attempted entry of the company’s drilling equipment and building materials into the site, despite the resistance from the community.

The protesting villagers from barangays Pao, Paquet and Kakidugen have been contesting authenticity of the certification of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which the company used in obtaining a permit from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

They said the FPIC was “fraudulently issued” by “bogus” tribal members, some of them allegedly coming from Keat village in Nagtipunan, Quirino.

The FPIC certification, a copy of which was obtained by this writer, stated that 14 of the signatories were set to receive P4,000 monthly as Oxiana’s “liaison officers” while 19 others were to get P3,000 a month.

“The fact that this supposed employment was being offered as a sort of reward for the signatories betrays the very essence of why FPIC is being required,” said Bernabe Almirol, Dapon convenor.

MGB records indicated that Oxiana’s permit expired on Saturday, ending the four-month extension from March 17, 2007, the original expiry date.

Oxiana officials could not be reached for comment.

But engineer Jerrysal Mangaoang, MGB director for Cagayan Valley, said he has granted a 20-month extension of the company’s permit, due to “force majeure”.

The mining official was referring to a temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), due to questions on the alleged lack of the needed FPIC from affected tribal communities.

He said the number of villagers barricading in Pao was “negligible”.

Mangaoang defended the company, saying the FPIC was validly granted by indigenous groups in the area.

“Also, the barricaders are not from Pao or Kakidugen. (To say that the FPIC was fraudulently given) is unfair for the indigenous groups who gave their consent,” he said.

Second facelift

Australian mining firm gets new name–again

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–An Australian mining firm that is eyeing to conduct large-scale mining activities in upland Kasibu town has changed its name for the second time in nearly three years, with company officials claiming the move was part of a corporate packaging strategy.

Australasian Philippines Mining Inc. (Apmi) is now known as OceanaGold Phils., Inc., by virtue of a 2006 merger in Australia between Climax Mining Limited, Apmi’s parent company, and Oceana Gold Limited, said Ramoncito Gozar, the company’s associate director for communications and external affairs.

“Apmi in the Philippines just sought for a change in name (because) we want the company to be international in a sense, because OceanaGold is better known internationally. It’s just ‘branding’,” he said.

OceanaGold is aiming to start its proposed gold-copper project in Didipio village amid opposition from the local communities.

Originally known as Climax Arimco Mining Corp., the company was granted entry into the country through a financial and technical assistance agreement it entered into with the Philippine government in 1994.

CAMC later transferred the FTAA to Apmi in a 2004 agreement. However, it has failed to start actual mining operations after failing to get the consent of local communities.

The change of name came to the fore when the company tried to start exploration activities in Papaya village in Kasibu early this month, drawing opposition from locals.

Villagers said mining should never be allowed in their area because it has been declared through a local ordinance as a watershed for about 10,000 hectares of citrus plantations in Malabing Valley.

Residents have expressed confusion over the changes in the company’s name, and raised concerns that different foreign corporations were taking turns in using the FTAA to try to extract the province’s mineral resources.

“Geologists came insisting that they no longer needed the consent of the community. People there are confused because we are facing an enemy that is constantly changing its looks,” Prescilla Guilao, Papaya village treasurer, said in the dialect.

She said the people also suspect that wealthy foreign businessmen were using different corporations as dummies.

Guilao noted that another Australian company, Oxiana Phils., was also granted an exploration permit covering about 5,800 hectares in nearby Pao village.

Papaya residents said the change of name was meant not only as a “cosmetic remedy” to boost the company’s image before mining investors, but also to evade liability for its previous actions.

But Gozar denied this, adding that OceanaGold, which is a 100-percent Australian-owned company, remains the same company that originally had a stake in Didipio.

OceanaGold is not related to Oxiana, he said.

In adopting the new name, he said the company aims to ride on the good record that Oceana has established in the global mining industry.

“We also want to be carried by the good environment and social merits and experiences of OceanaGold abroad. We are bound to do (these programs) in the Philippines, anyway,” he said.

Attention: Ombudsman

Ombudsman dared: Get big fish, too

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–Local treasury officials on Wednesday assailed the supposed double standards being imposed by the Ombudsman in sanctioning employees who have failed to account for missing funds in their custody.

Sources, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, challenged Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierres to evenly apply the anti-graft law even to high-ranking officials, and not single out lowly employees for “minimal” amount of missing government money.

A treasury official called it “unfair” that their colleague, Janitly Cadiente, treasurer of Kasibu town, was made as a “sacrificial lamb” after the Ombudsman ordered her dismissal for failing to account about P730,000 of the town’s funds.

“If the Ombudsman is indeed [carrying out] an honest-to-goodness campaign against graft and corruption, then why are there many other officials who are running away unscathed despite the large amounts of money that they have failed to account for?” the source said.

“Is it because they are untouchables and beyond the reach of the law?” she asked.

In a five-page decision, Gutierrez ordered Cadiente dismissed from service after the latter failed to explain the shortage of P730, 084.78 in her accounts, covering the period December 17, 2002 to June 23, 2003.

“When an accountable officer fail[s] to produce the missing funds, it is presumed that she applied the same for her personal use and benefit,” which rendered the official “no longer worthy to remain in her position as she had violated the trust reposed on her,” the Ombudsman said.

But Cadiente’s case pales in comparison those in the provincial government, the source said, wherein millions remain unaccounted for due to the supposed “condonation” by some provincial officials who are mandated by law to protect government money.

Official documents obtained by this writer showed that as of July 11, unliquidated cash advances in the provincial government totalled P13.8 million, spread out among more than 110 officials and employees.

Records indicated that former board member Flaviano Balgos Jr., who is no longer with the provincial government, posted the highest cash advance of P2.6 million.

Four other employees have posted unaccounted cash advances totalling P6 million, documents showed.

“The Ombudsman should show its sincerity by making everyone accountable, regardless of one’s rank or connections in government,” the source said, alluding to some employees who have neither been charged nor sanctioned due to their perceived close ties with the province’s leaders.

Kasibu Mayor Romeo Tayaban expressed sympathy for Cadiente, but declined to comment on the anti-graft body’s supposed bias against lowly employees.

“It’s a pity really, but we cannot do anything because that is her accountability,” he said, adding that he, too was unaware that the town’s treasurer had a cash shortage of P730,000.

Sought for comment, provincial treasurer Perfecto Martinez Jr. said his office has begun “administrative measures” against those who have failed to account for their cash advances, in compliance with the recommendations of the Commission on Audit.

“Some employees are now facing charges for their unsettled accounts, while others are on the process of settling them,” he said.