WHILE print, broadcast and social media were too occupied with the protests of OFWs over the balikbayan box and the Iglesia Ni Cristo two weeks ago, something significant, interesting and relevant was unfolding at the Office of the Ombudsman.
The feisty Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales dismissed from government service the director and five members of the Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) of the National Printing Office (NPO), a relatively small agency that attracts media attention only when the election period draws near.
The NPO is deputized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to print the official ballots and other election paraphernalia, highly-sensitive documents that are considered sacred to keep the integrity and credibility of elections, both national and local.
Over the years, however, the NPO has been embroiled in numerous cases involving anomalous and irregular practices of sub-contracting, rigging of bids and leasing of private printers’ machines at enormous costs.
The NPO is one of the three recognized government printers tasked to safeguard the sanctity of government standard accountable and non-accountable forms used in the collection of taxes, fees, and other charges due to the state in the course of government transactions. The other two are the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) printing office and the APO Production Unit.
The dismissal of the six top officials of NPO was significant in view of the upcoming national elections in May 2016. It should mean an end to anomalous procurements and bid rigging practices in the little known but important government agency.
The Ombudsman’s 12-page order that came out on August 28 said NPO acting Director Emmanuel Andaya, BAC chairman Sylvia Banda and members Josefina Samson, Antonio Sillona, Bernadette Lagumen, and Ma. Gracia Enriquez were found guilty of grave misconduct in connection with the anomalous procurement of printing services worth P1.9 million.
Andaya was formerly an official of the Presidential Security Group (PSG).
With the dismissal from service, they were also meted out the accessory penalties of cancellation of eligibility, forfeiture of retirement benefits, perpetual disqualification from holding public office, and barred from taking civil service examinations.
The Ombudsman likewise ordered the filing of a criminal case for violation of Section 3(e) of Republic Act No. 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act) against the six NPO officials.
The case involved the procurement of 1,000 boxes of Travel Clearance Certificates (TCC) requested by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in 2010 that did not go through the mandatory public bidding. Andaya approved the BAC resolution resorting to emergency procurement of the TCCs at P1, 900 per box.
On Nov. 2010, the NPO awarded the contract to Advance Computer Forms, Inc. (Advance) with the lowest calculated and responsive bid of P1,899.95/box. The Ombudsman probe however found out that the NPO officials had authorized the advance delivery of the TCCs even before the contract was awarded to private printer.
The Ombudsman said the NPO officials “acted with manifest partiality, evident bad faith, or gross inexcusable negligence when they awarded the contract to Advance without the benefit of a public bidding as required by the Government Procurement Reform Act. It was also established that the conditions for the resort to the alternative mode of procurement were not present to justify the absence of public bidding.”
In its order, the Ombudsman stressed that “the conditions to resort to alternative methods of procurement are not empty words but were specifically crafted to guarantee that no personal preference is given to any supplier and that the government is given the best possible price for its procurement, especially since no public bidding is involved.”
The contract with Advance is just one of several pending cases of anomalous deals at the NPO where the agency skipped the required public bidding and resorted instead to emergency or negotiated bidding with favored private contractors.
Just two weeks before the Ombudsman’s dismissal order, the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division ordered the 90-day suspension of Andaya, Banda, Sillona, Lagumen and Enriquez over graft charges for skipping the bidding in the supply contract for personalized accountable forms worth P3.6 million to the provincial treasurer of Cebu.
His time, the case involved Cebu-based JI Printers, Inc. that was awarded the supply contract for personalized accountable forms for the Cebu provincial treasurer in 2011.
The Office of the Ombudsman filed two cases against the five accused for violating Section 3(e) and Section 3(g) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (Republic Act 3019) based on the complaint made by private printer Guillermo Sylianteng.
In April 2014, the NPO officials were also suspended for 30 days for neglect of duty in connection with the hiring of private lawyers Salvador C. Malana 3rd and Glacy S. Tabirara to represent the NPO in a civil case in the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) without the mandatory consent of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and the Commission on Audit (COA).
The complainant, private printer Guillermo Sylianteng of Best Forms, Inc., said NPO hired the two lawyers without any bidding and were paid P400,000, an amount the agency could have saved had it tapped its resident counsel, Sylvia C. Banda.
In his defense, Andaya said the NPO did not spend for Malana and Tabirara who, he claimed, worked pro bono on the RTC case. He dismissed the case as just a form of harassment from Sylianteng who was once blacklisted from joining NPO biddings.
It is puzzling why Congress has not pursued an investigation of alleged irregularities surrounding the bidding process for the printing of official ballots for the 2010 and 2013 elections.
There were allegations of overprinting of official ballots in the 2010 elections.
Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro City and his brother, Rep. Maximo Rodriguez, Jr. of party-list Abante Mindanao, had filed House Resolution 2995, asking the committee on suffrage and electoral reforms to look into the NPO bidding process.
For the 2013 elections, P784 million was budgeted for the lease, installation and commissioning of printing machines including the supply and delivery of ballot paper with security features and other consumables for the printing of the official ballots.
There were allegations that the contract was tailor-fitted for private printer Holy Family Printing Corp.
“After the submission of bids and during the opening of the bids, Holy Family was declared the winner despite its failure to meet some requirements for eligibility. It failed to comply with the technical requirements and allegedly failed the testing of the NPO,” Rodriguez said in his resolution.
In November 2012, Rep. Danilo Suarez of Quezon questioned the award of the contract to a private printer, citing that “election forms shall be printed exclusively by the National Printing Office and/or the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas” under Section 3 of the Memorandum Circular No. 180 which was issued on August 13, 2009.
Election watchdog Kontra-Daya has been raising several anomalies at NPO as early as 2007 and plunder cases had been filed against former and the recently-dismissed NPO officials.
It is about time that these cases are now moving. It somehow lends credence to the conduct of the 2016 elections, in the hope that President Benigno Aquino 3rd appoints persons of integrity and credibility to replace the dismissed officials.
If those he had appointed to the APO Production Unit managed to do a 180-degree turn in just a year since 2010, with APO now operating a state-of-art printing facility in Batangas, there is still time to turn around NPO and bring back credibility and integrity on sensitive government forms, specifically in the official election ballots.
It is an opportune time for President Aquino to bring back the sanctity of the ballot by instituting much-needed and long-delayed reforms at the NPO by placing people there who can dismantle what appeared like a syndicate of private printers controlling the agency. There is still hope for “daang matuwid.”