Metro Rail Transit (MRT) General Manager Al Vitangcol went on leave as the government investigates allegations that he and other officials of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) attempted to extort $30 million from a Czech company.
Secretary Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya on Tuesday said that they have started investigating the alleged shakedown even if no formal complaint had been filed against Vitangcol and the other officials.
“Yes, GM [general manager Al]Vitangcol was named by the ambassador [Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtar]. We are investigating the whole issue despite not receiving any formal complaint or receiving any evidence to substantiate it,” Abaya told reporters.
Abaya confirmed that Vitangcol filed for a leave of absence.
At the same time, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) gave assurances that the allegations of the Czech ambassador will be fully investigated.
Also on Tuesday, Malacañang pledged that the issue will not be swept under the rug.
Rychtar went to the DFA office on Monday after he was summoned to shed light on his allegations.
“All I can tell you is this matter is now being looked into by concerned agencies,” Raul Hernandez, Foreign Affairs spokesman, said. He did not say which agencies are investigating the allegations.
The ambassador claimed that some MRT officials, including Vitangcol, demanded $30 million from Czech company Inekon for it to win the contract to provide several coaches for the modernization of the Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT 3) line. Rychtar claimed that he met Vitangcol and his men twice—in Makati and Quezon cities—but the MRT head denied it.
The controversy, which dragged Presidential sister Ballsy Aquino-Cruz and her husband Eldon, was first published by The Manila Times through a three-part series written by the paper’s Chairman Emeritus Dr. Dante A. Ang.
However, in a letter to President Benigno Aquino 3rd, Rychtar said the couple was not involved in the extortion attempt.
The ambassador claimed that Inekon was blacklisted by the DOTC, but this was denied by the Palace and Abaya. However, over the past three years, the Czech government had sent more than 10 letters to the Transportation department in support of Inekon’s proposal but got no answer.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the government will investigate anomalies because “it is not the President’s character to sweep things under the rug.”
“He has the courage to face issues squarely,” Coloma added.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said that Aquino wanted the extortion attempt thoroughly investigated.
“You heard him: He will look into these alleged irregularities but he will not act in haste. He will await the findings of the agencies he has tasked to investigate these issues,” he said
“Once the fact finding is done and the recommendations of the investigative bodies are presented to him, then that’s when you can expect resolute action from him,” Abad added.
In his Monday’s speech, the President asked accusers of wrongdoings to submit evidence to prove their allegations.
On July 19, the DOTC said that it has initiated an investigation into Rychtar’s allegations. Abaya said he will also forward documents to the Office of the Ombudsman so that it can initiate its own probe.
MRT3 is Metro Manila’s third rapid transit line. It forms part of the Manila Light Transit System line 1 and Manila Light Rail Transit System Line 2.
Data from Metro Rail Transit Authority (MRTA) showed that 54.81 million commuters took the MRT3 from January to April 2012, or 8.79 percent more than the 50.38 million in the same period of 2011.
This translates to an average daily ridership of 456,755 in 2012, higher than the service’s capacity of 350,000 a day.
MRTA earned P672.44 million in the first four months of 2012, up from P621.23 million in the same period of 2011.
Abad also said that the government reduced the subsidy for the MRT by over a billion pesos.
The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) submitted its proposed P2.268 budget FOR 2014 before the House of Representatives yesterday.
“The subsidy for MRT will be reduced by a little over a billion pesos [in 2014], but it has nothing to do with the expectation that the fares will increase,” Abad said in a press conference.
“If that [fare increases]should happen, it will be good for the DBM because we have unprogrammed items that can be funded. With additional sources of income, we will have a more responsive budget,” he added.
Abad said the P4 billion subsidy for the rail transport under the 2014 proposed budget will be used to acquire additional coaches and improvement of MRT and LRT facilities.
If fares will increase, it will be “hover at P25,” he added.
The President has cited the need to increase rail fare because it is unfair for taxpayers outside Metro Manila to pay for the MRT and LRT subsidies when they are not even using it.
“The President explained the rationale for the increase yesterday. As it is, P25 are unfairly subsidized by those in the Mindanano, Visayas, Cordilleras, who don’t ride the MRT. It [P25] is an indication of the level of increase,” Abad stressed.
“The fare should be comparable to the buses because it is certainly more convenient to ride the MRT than buses,” he added.