Once again the Aquino Administration has missed an opportunity to demonstrate that there is one shred of validity in its tiresome claim that it represents the forces of anti-corruption and good governance daw, and in the process allowed an issue that could have been resolved quickly and quietly to balloon into a diplomatic crisis.
About a year ago, Dr. Josef Rychtar, since 2009 the ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Philippines, delivered an alarming story to Department of Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya about what was evidently a clumsy extortion attempt by officials of the Metro Rail Transit Corp. (MRTC).
At the time of the incident (July 2012), the well-known Czech light rail manufacturer Inekon was exploring making a bid to supply the MRT with new rail cars, an initiative the company had been pursuing for about a year up to that point. On July 9, 2012, according to Dr. Rychtar, he, two officials of Inekon, MRTC general manager Al Vitangcol III, a certain M. de la Cruz, and one Wilson de Vera, a Liberal Party apparatchik Rychtar described as Vitangcol’s “emissary”, met for dinner to discuss the MRT project.
After dinner, Vitangcol took his leave from the group, the rest of whom proceeded to Rychtar’s residence to continue the discussion. While there, de Vera allegedly suggested a payment of $30 million to ‘facilitate’ Inekon’s bid, which the company immediately rejected. De Vera excused himself to make two phone calls, after which he returned with a lower price of $2.5 million. Citing “unclear terms of reference” and suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the bidding process, Inekon decided to withdraw its preliminary bid and take no further part in the proceedings.
For reasons known only to Rychtar, but not too hard to guess at if you understand a little about the position of most ambassadors in this country, which I’ll get to in a bit, he did not immediately take the story to the Philippine authorities, and might not have done so at all if the rumor—published first by The Daily Tribune —that presidential sister Elena “Ballsy” Aquino-Cruz and her husband, well-known shady operator Eldon Cruz were behind the extortion attempt had not exploded all over the media. The most damning piece of evidence in that assertion was the visit to Prague by the Cruz couple in 2011, where they presumably had an opportunity to meet with Inekon officials; they and their presidential brother have of course denied that anything unseemly occurred, and Ambassador Rychtar himself completely dismissed the allegations against them, a position that this paper’s own publisher, Dr. Dante Ang, rather vigorously concurred with in a couple of his own columns.
Rychtar met with Abaya twice, in April and July of last year, both times submitting a letter detailing his meetings to the Department of Foreign Affairs, as would be expected; he also filed an affidavit with supporting documents at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), who—according to them, anyway—initiated an inquiry into the matter. The DOTC was also supposed to be conducting its own investigation, but having received no further information from Ambassador Rychtar (who had already gone beyond what he should be expected to do by informing both the DFA and the NBI), Secretary Abaya this week arbitrarily “cleared” Vitangcol of any wrongdoing and implied that the case was closed as far as the DOTC was concerned; this, despite the NBI still not having completed its investigation and with notice already given to the several concerned parties of Congress’ intent to hold its own hearings on the matter.
Vitangcol for his part has flatly denied having anything to do with the alleged extortion attempt, but despite being defended rather ably by some quarters—Belinda Olivares-Cunanan in particular makes a strong case in his favor on her blog http://www.polbits.com/2013/10/al-vitangcol-as-fall-guy-in-inekon.html), where she points out that he is actually not highly-enough placed to have handled a big-ticket scam of this nature – it is impossible to conclude that the extortion attempt did not happen, and very difficult to believe that Vitangcol, whether as an active player or a dupe of still-unidentified interests, was not right in the middle of it. Palace statements to the effect that “Vitangcol is not being protected” certainly have not helped his cause, either.
What further deepens suspicion about the involvement of highly-placed individuals is the sophomoric way in which the Aquino Administration has chosen to try to cover for whoever those individuals might be. By launching a smear campaign against Ambassador Rychtar as a defense of naked corruption by someone close to the powers that be, the government is displaying an appalling lack of comprehension about the role of ambassadors in general, and about the representative of the Czech Republic in particular.
This is the man who President Aquino’s mouthpieces are accusing of “sour-graping,” “having a business agenda,” and “having a fertile imagination”: Josef Rychtar holds a Doctorate in Natural Sciences with a specialization in Applied Geophysics and was formerly part of the faculty of Charles University in Prague. After a stint with the Geophysical Institute of Brno (Czech Republic) and as a consulting geophysicist with the Ministry of Electricity and Water in Kuwait, he entered the foreign service and has since served as ambassador to Kuwait and Qatar, was appointed as a special envoy for UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iraq by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, has served as ambassador to Colombia and Ecuador, and was director of the Czech Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and Africa Department for three years before taking his post as ambassador to the Philippines in 2009.
This is neither a stupid man nor one to dredge up a two-year-old issue out of mere pettiness, and chances are he deeply regrets even having to think about such an issue. To diplomats from most countries—particularly small, peaceful European nations with limited business interests in the Philippines—an assignment to this interesting country with its friendly climate is considered a prize; a low-wattage post that allows one to enjoy the ambience without having to work much harder than overseeing the issuance of visas or attending frequent cultural events requires. Any opportunity for Inekon is long dead, and turned out so badly that no one else from the Czech Republic would touch a deal here with a ten-foot pole; therefore, there is absolutely nothing to be gained for Rychtar personally or even for the country he represents to persist in trying to see justice done in this case.
So why does he persist? Maybe – as alien a notion as it is to the habitués of the current administration – it is because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps Ambassador Rychtar is actually mistaken that the voice at the other end of those two fateful phone calls was Al Vitangcol’s, and perhaps he is not; he is, after all, a source of formidable credibility. Or maybe it was Vitangcol, but only speaking for someone else. Somebody tried to extort the Czech firm, that much is clear; perhaps if the Aquino Administration actually lived up to its self-promotion for once and concerned itself with finding out who it was instead of working quickly to build a reputation for being disrespectful to foreign envoys who stand head and shoulders in training and experience above most of the administration combined, we could all move on to more important things.