THE Department of National Defense (DND) on Thursday hit back at Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano for alleging irregularities on the purchase of Navy frigates, saying the lawmaker only had “innuendos” and no proof.
DND spokesman Arsenio Andolong said there were no grounds to terminate the frigate acquisition project of the Philippine Navy.
“We must point out that the anomalies being cited by [Alejano] are mere allegations and innuendos which are not legal grounds for termination of the [frigate]project,” Andolong said in a statement.
“There is a proper process prescribed in Republic Act No. 9184 (Government Procurement Reform Act) concerning the termination of a procurement project and there are specific conditions that must be present in order to invoke it, none of which are existing at the moment in this project,” he said.
In a privilege speech earlier this week, Alejano called for the cancellation of the P18-billion frigate project, claiming the Korean contractor violated the contract, endangering the modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Alejano claimed the government would not lose money because Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), contractor of the Navy’s frigate deal, had paid 20 percent of the contract, which could be confiscated.
The dispute centers on who should be the supplier of the weapons system – Dutch company Thales Tacticos or South Korean-based Naval Shield of Hanwha Thales.
Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado was sacked on December 18 as flag officer in command of the Navy, for allegedly sitting down on the frigate deal for four months.
He was replaced by Rear Admiral Robert Empedrad, former AFP deputy chief of staff for reservists and retiree affairs (J9).
Mercado was said to have favored Thales Tacticos and even met with former Navy chiefs to help his cause, which earned the ire of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Palace Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the memorandum of the acquisition decision was released as early as 2013, during the time of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
It was Gazmin who approved the final technical specifications for the frigate procurement last January 2016.
At the time, Mercado was commander of the military’s Western Command but was among members of the technical working group (TWG) of the Philippine Navy.
He was also part of the post-qualification team that declared HHI as the “qualified and capable” in delivering two frigates for the Navy’s project worth P18 billion.
On August 18, 2016, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, successor of Gazmin, signed the frigate project’s Notice of Award and consulted the TWG.
A well-placed military source of The Manila Times said Lorenzana repeatedly asked the TWG, which included Mercado, if there were any questions or concerns regarding the frigate project before he signed the contract.
In October 2016, Lorenzana and the vice president of HHI signed the contract in accordance with the procurement process. Vice admiral Jesus Millan was the Navy chief.
But in January 2017, Mercado supposedly questioned the terms of the contract despite Lorenzana’s earlier consultations with the Philippine Navy TWG.
The HHI contract also states that it is responsible for the delivery of the entire frigate including its components such as the combat management system (CMS).
In February last year, Mercado sacked Empedrad as chairman of the TWG for the frigate deal and designated Capt. Sean Villa.
The Times source said Mercado wrote to the Defense Acquisition Office (DAO) of the DND, saying that the Navy was not endorsing HHI as the CMS supplier, allegedly lobbying for Thales Tacticos to supply the weapons system.
Another source, however, said Mercado and Empedrad had a rift.
Among reasons why Empedrad and Mercado fought was because of the latter’s favoring France for the CMS, after a trip to Europe.
This month, reports came out alleging that Special Assistant to the President (SAP) Christopher “Bong” Go intervened in the Navy frigate deal and supposedly lobbied for Hanwha Thales to supply the weapons system.
Duterte and Lorenzana have denied Go’s involvement in the frigate deal.
Empedrad gets appointment
Also on Thursday, the Palace said President Duterte had made permanent Empedrad’s appointment as chief of the Philippine Navy.
In a letter dated January 16, Duterte informed Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that Empedrad’s appointment was approved effective December 19, 2017.
Empedrad, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1986, was a commander of the Navy’s Offshore Combat Force and concurrent project manager of the frigate program.
DEMPSEY REYES AND CATHERINE S. VALENTE