DEFENSE Secretary Voltaire Gazmin probably thought taking the media for a ride (no pun intended) on the newly acquired UH-1D Huey helicopters would dispel widespread public skepticism over the Department of National Defense (DND)’s controversial P1.2 billion-chopper deal. Wrong!
If at all, it merely fortified the belief of many Filipinos that something stinks about the Defense department’s “negotiated contract” with US company Rice Aircraft Services, Incorporated (RASI).
For starters, if, as Gazmin says, all of the helicopters were “operational and functional,” why did he only use two of the 7 UH-1D helicopters during the flight demo? Is it because the other five choppers are still inoperable due to defects and missing parts, as disclosed by some disillusioned AFP officers?
That the freshly refurbished helicopters delivered by RASI experienced mechanical problems soon after delivery is admitted by the DND. During the May 2015 Senate hearing, it was reported that at least four choppers showed engine trouble, with the engine of one Huey being changed entirely. Two other UH-1Ds suffered engine leaks while one other chopper would not start.
Further casting doubt on the integrity of the chopper deal is the recent conviction of Thach Nguyen – the original representative of RASI to the DND bidding – who was sentenced by a US court to 57 months in prison last month.
Nguyen pleaded guilty to wire fraud and prohibited brokering after falsely claiming to be a lawyer and a state department employee when he brokered the questionable sale of 21 refurbished helicopters – originally owned and manufactured by Germany – to the Philippine government.
According to reports, Nguyen prepared two letters purportedly signed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2011 that went to the German and Philippine governments. Both letters were fraudulent.
Apparently, the letters were issued so that Germany would sell – and the Philippines would buy – the UH-1D helicopters offered by RASI. That’s because under US law, the purchase, import, sale and export of defense articles like Huey choppers require the approval of the US State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC).
Since the sale of the UH-1Ds to the Philippine government did not have the blessings of the DDTC, it was impossible for RASI to “weaponize” or make the Huey helicopters combat-ready. At most, RASI could upgrade the engine, refurbish the airframe, re-wire and update the avionics but only as a commercial, not military, aircraft. But that is a violation of the DND’s bid terms which asked for “combat helicopters.”
Perhaps this explains why, as observed by former AFP chief (and now congressman) Pong Biazon, there were no guns mounted on the supposedly “combat mission-capable” helicopters demoed by the DND. Biazon was referring to the 2 door-mounted 7.62 mm machine guns – standard armaments for UH-1D combat helicopters. DND and military officials claimed the guns were removed “because it was a public test flight.” Really??
If the chopper deal was indeed aboveboard, Gazmin should immediately release to the public the formal US State Department approval, not only for the sale of the UH-1D helicopters and the machine guns but also the serial numbers and import documents of the weapons delivered by RASI, if there was any.
The recent case filed by RASI in California against its erstwhile partners in the chopper deal does not help Gazmin’s cause. We obtained a copy of the complaint and here’s what RASI said:
“In or about 2013, after numerous failed bids, Rice received a call from a representative familiar with the tender for the subject helicopters for the government of the Philippines. The representative, now officially an agent of Rice in the Philippines, asked a representative of Rice to come to the Philippines to discuss the bids.”
“Upon arrival in the Philippines, Rice learned that…majority of the approvals obtain by Nguyen were illegitimate….Despite this setback, Rice ultimately did enter into a contract with the government of the Philippines in December 2013 for the sale of the subject helicopters for a total of 1,264,977,615.52 Philippine Pesos (PhP)…”
RASI’s admissions raise the following questions: First, why did Gazmin still enter into a contract with RASI knowing that the paperwork submitted by its then agent Nguyen was fraudulent and that there was no state department approval for the chopper sale?
Second, who is this new “representative/official agent” of RASI? The Senate should unmask the identity of this crucial witness. However, that might prove more damning to DND and RASI officials.
Insiders say that this representative-cum-agent is none other than Rhodora Alvarez, the whistleblower in the assailed helicopter deal. If so, Alvarez really has intimate knowledge of the deal and she would make a credible witness.
For one, Alvarez claims RASI agreed to give Gazmin a 7 percent commission (or some P88 million) from the deal, with another 5 percent (P63 million) “for the boys”. That would qualify as “plunder”, a non-bailable offense, once Alvarez provides enough prima facie evidence.
We will dissect the other irregularities in the DND chopper deal in our succeeding columns.