PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Palawan: President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Tuesday said he does not know Metro Rail Transit (MRT) General Manager Al Vitangcol 3rd who was recently sacked for nepotism.
Vitangcol, a presidential appointee, was axed on Monday by Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya for having personal ties with the winning bidder of an MRT project.
“He [Vitangcol] looks vaguely familiar but I don’t really know him that well,” Aquino told reporters.
He explained that he allows Cabinet secretaries to choose the people they want to work with.
“Out of curiosity, who is Vitangcol in my inner circle?” the President shot back when asked of his relationship with the former MRT chief.
Vitangcol was appointed to the MRT in January 2012 when Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd was still the head of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC).
Light Rail Transit Authority Administrator Joy Chaneco was named MRT chief in an acting capacity.
During a hearing at the House of Representatives earlier on Tuesday, Vitangcol said he initially did not know that he was related by affinity to Arturo Soriano, a director-incorporator of PhilTrams, the company awarded with the MRT contract. Soriano is an uncle of Vitangcol’s wife.
Vitangcol claimed that he told Soriano to divest his shares in the firm because of the conflict of interest. He said Soriano was no longer a part of the project when the P517-million maintenance contract was awarded to PhilTrams.
In 2013, Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtar accused Vitangcol of being part of a group that tried to extort $30 million from Czech firm Inekon Group in exchange for a contract to supply trains for MRT 3. He went on leave following the controversy but returned to office when the issue died down.
The Manila Times broke the story on the alleged extortion attempt.
When asked why Vitangcol was not sacked from office over the extortion issue, Abaya said the DOTC did not find enough proof because the department had a difficult time compelling people to cooperate since the agency does not have subpoena powers.
Vitangcol was a member of the Bids and Awards Committee that granted the maintenance contract to PH Trams and its partner, COM Builders.
Meanwhile, the accused broker in the alleged extortion attempt has left the country, it was learned also on Tuesday.
Vitangcol said Wilson de Vera sold his assets and fled to the US along with his family.
De Vera is one of the incorporators of PHTrams, one of the companies that bagged the P517-million maintenance deal for the MRT 3 in October 2012 alongside COM Builders. He ran for mayor in Calasiao, Pangasinan, in 2013 under the ruling Liberal Party headed by President Aquino but lost.
“I know him but I don’t have any personal relationship with de Vera. I did not talk to him [about the extortion attempt]. I tried to find him to dispute what the ambassador said against me, but his phone number that was with me isn’t working anymore. I later found out that he and his family sold all their assets here and moved to the United States,” Vitangcol said when he appeared before the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, which is investigating the extortion attempt.
Rychtar had claimed that the extortion happened in the presence of de Vera.
“The Czech envoy wanted a government-to-government contract, which is without public bidding. This is not what the DOTC wanted. That’s why he got angry,” Vitangcol said.
But Rep. Elpidio Barzaga of Cavite, the vice chairman of the House good government and public accountability committee, is not convinced of Vitangcol’s reasoning.
“Would you believe that de Vera acted without Vitangcol knowing? They know each other. It’s like a lawmaker having an agent,” Barzaga said.