Those looking for the ammunition to prove that the “daang matuwid” is a sham and an empty governing slogan can now present their Exhibit A. It is the sordid saga of fired MRT General Manager Al Vitangcol 3rd. Even allies of the Aquino government who can forgive one rotten egg in a supposedly honest administration have been wondering why Vitangcol’s MRT tenure had lasted that long. And was allowed to administer the MRT with impunity and indiscretion of the gravest kind.
Vitangcol’s MRT leadership, by all accounts, was standard-issue Third World corruption and recklessness, the kind you see in governments unbound by rules and laws, the ones lacking in basic decency. Why it thrived for so long in a government reputedly dedicated to integrity is one of the things that would forever blot and scar Mr. Aquino’s claim of running an honest and competent government.
Those who claim that the Vitangcol saga is a tiny, lamentable blot in an otherwise clean and competent government, think again. The Vitangcol story, for one, has generated a corruption story that spilled out of our borders and forced an ambassador of a foreign to break protocol and tradition to expose an alleged attempt by Vitangcol and a confederate to demand bribes from an MRT train supplier.
But first let us focus on the big issue of the moment, the technical and operational woes of the MRT, and its tarnished reputation as the provider/abettor of long queues, two-hour wait for rides, missing trains, broken-down trains and serious accidents.
The grave operational and technical woes of the MRT, including a recent accident that caused serious and minor injuries to all passengers on that particular run, is a context that requires this policy imperative: make sure that the MRT is maintained well, from the trains to the tracks, down to the minutest component of the MRT system.
More, the MRT now serves as the anchor of Metro Manila’s mass transport infrastructure and, ideally, it should be the public face of technical and operational efficiency.
Why did Vitangcol’s MRT epically failed to do just that? Why did he fail to fulfill that one basic mandate as MRT general manager?
In a case of classic Third World sleaze, it turned out that the maintenance of the MRT, a P517 million contract, had been quietly awarded by the Vitangcol-led MRT management in 2012 to a consortium made up of two companies—the Comm Builders and Technology Inc., or CB&T, and Philippine Trams Rail Management & and Services, or PH Trams.
The fancy names of the consortium members, notwithstanding, a cursory check revealed these facts:
The principal of the consortium, PH Trams, was newly formed before it got the maintenance contract in 2012. It had no track record in the sensitive job of maintaining MRTs.
The consortium was undercapitalized.
Worse, it was a no-bid contract, according to the media expose.
Here is the worst part, which unraveled in a recent congressional inquiry. The PH Tram’s original incorporators included Arturo Soriano, Wilson de Vera, Mario de la Cruz and Manolo Maralit. Who are these people and personalities? The story gets more interesting.
Soriano is a maternal uncle of Vitangcol’s wife. Shortly before the award of the MRT maintenance contract to the consortium led by PH Tram —we are speaking here of a no-bid contract worth half a billion pesos—Soriano got out of the PH Trams. Why would a perfectly sane businessman on the lookout for opportunities get out of a consortium on the verge of getting a half a billion peso contract? That was amazingly weird.
Congressmen smelled a shallow legal ruse to free Vitangcol and the MRT Board from getting jailed under the anti-graft laws. Soriano’s exit was perfect, shortly before the no-bid award.
But many congressmen are convinced that Soriano’s divestment was a crude legal maneuver to allow Vitangcol to make the award to PH Trams.
Wilson de Vera, take note of that name, was named by Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtar, as one of the two people who tried to extort $30 million from Czech-based train supplier Inekon Group. De Vera and a confederate told Inekon that the $30 million would be in exchange for the MRT’s purchase of 48 LRVs or new light rail vehicles from Inekon. With de Vera on that alleged extortion attempt was . . . Vitangcol himself.
Vitangcol and de Vera had denied the extortion attempt. But for an ambassador to make a strong and unqualified accusation of wrongdoing against a public official in his host country is unprecedented. Inekon Chair Josef Husek had corroborated the statements of Rychtar.
Classic sleaze. Recklessness, stories of corruption so brazen, and impunity. That was the MRT during the reign of Vitangcol. Yet, despite the early warning signs, Vitangcol was coddled and protected in the centers of power.
On top of these, Vitangcol failed on his number one job. Which was to make the MRT, the anchor of the Metro Manila mass transport system, safe and efficient. The MRT is now a broken-down, shabby and dangerous form of mass transport, thanks to Vitangcol.
The Vitangcol era at the MRT is part of the dark, corrupt underbelly that keeps on gnawing at the claim of “daang matuwid” and good governance. Would Vitangcol get his comeuppance? Or, would he get the kid glove treatment as before?