I didn’t expect my defense of Presidential sister Ballsy and brother-in-law Eldon Cruz, former DOTC Secretary Pete Prado and Lopez-in-law Steve Psinakis on their alleged attempt to extort $30 million from a Czech company in exchange for MRT project contracts to invite polarized reactions from my readers.
Naturally, some disagreed with me while others were supportive. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m less concerned with earning public approval than writing a legitimate story.
I was handed the document containing details of the alleged $30-million extortion try about three weeks ago by someone who has access to the DOTC goings-on. Just like that. He’s asked me to study the document and do whatever I wanted to do with it.
The accusations are so serious that I said, “I will look into it, talk personally to the people on the list, get their side of the story and, hopefully, uncover the truth before publishing the report”—if it would do any good.
In the days that followed, he emailed me, sent and forwarded me text messages from one of the major players in the botched extort episode. We talked on the phone almost daily.
But while I was preparing to talk to some of the people cited in the document, out came the radio newscast accusing Ballsy, Eldon, Prado and Psinakis of allegedly demanding $30 million from Inekon, a Czech company, for a favorable deal with the MRT. The reports dragged Big Names into the fray except that they were not the characters on the list.
I then decided to write a story defending the presidential relatives, Prado and Psinakis, the better to help enlighten the public on this relevant issue and to challenge our government officials and thought leaders to stand up against corruption in government not by mere rhetoric but by some positive action.
I should be the last person to defend the President or his family from their detractors. Little is known about the fact that I was “fired” by the President in February 2012 as consultant for the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) for my close ties with the late President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and for his mistaken information (a piece of black prop) that I was former Supreme Court Justice’s Rene Corona’s PR consultant. I told my friend at the PCSO that “I am not Corona’s PR, but if he had asked me, I would have helped him.”
I submitted my irrevocable resignation to the PCSO Board after learning from a highly reliable source that a personal message by the President, no less, was sent to the PCSO Chair Margie P. Juico, “not to defend Dante Ang anymore.” I wanted to spare her the agony of having to defend me in the face of a presidential order. Besides, I was afraid that if I stayed a day longer, I would be placing her in a fix. She would likely court the ire of the President and face the prospect of an abbreviated reign at the PCSO.
It is my view that defending the innocent is a matter of public duty. Media practitioners are bound by ethical standards of checking, cross-checking, verifying, interviewing the persons mentioned in a story before it is published or aired. No sort of thing ever happened before the alleged involvement of the presidential relatives in the $30-million shakedown was aired on radio three times in as many days.
The $30 million extort try
The reported $30 million demand by some people—in and out of government - is contained in a 2-page document that was furnished me by someone with access to DOTC records. It includes dates, meetings, events and summaries or descriptions and even quotes of conversations between DOTC and MRT officials, the Czech Ambassador to the Philippines and the roles played by some private individuals in the episode.
The paper talks of the dinner attended by the Czech Ambassador, two Inekon officials, MRT General Manager Al Vitangcol, Manolo Maralit, Wilson de Vera and Marlo dela Cruz, that led to another meeting at the Ambassador’s residence where someone in the group allegedly proposed that Inekon officials give a $30 million gift. The Czech officials rejected the idea as being “excessive and impossible.”
It also describes the events surrounding Vitangcol’s proposal to Inekon to set up a Philippine company for a joint venture undertaking with the Czech company which would be 60 percent owned, secretly, by the MRT GM’s uncle and some other equity holders.
The document also tells of how Vitangcol allegedly snubbed the Czech Ambassador and Inekon officials when they went to his office for an official call previously arranged by DOTC people weeks earlier.
Interview with a principal figure
My source, it should now be obvious, is someone who was part of the whole shameful episode. He confirmed the dinner sometime in July 2012 somewhere in Makati with the two Inekon officials, Vitangcol, Maralit who made the arrangement upon the request of the Ambassador, Wilson de Vera and Marlo P. dela Cruz.
He said that after the dinner, Maralit went to him and said that “Vitangcol wants another meeting somewhere else and he will explain to you what you must do to proceed with the project.” The Ambassador suggested his residence.
My source said that Vitangcol begged off saying that Wilson de Vera was authorized to speak for him. Present in the meeting at the Ambassador’s residence were the Ambassador, the two Inekon officials, Manolo Maralit, and Wilson de Vera. Nobody could ascertain for sure whether or not Marlo dela Cruz was also present.
In that meeting, Wilson de Vera “offered [named the amount] how much Inekon must pay.” My source said that “He started with $30 million” and subsequently lowered it to $2.5 million after the Inekon group rejected his demand. The Ambassador said, “Are you crazy? Do you realize how much each train would cost? Each train will cost $4.5 million.”
De Vera, according to my source, excused himself and said that he “must consult.” He then proceeded to call someone and came back and said, “Ok, Mr. Vitangcol said that the consultants have determined that the cost of the train must not go over $3 million.” Dela Cruz then lowered the extortion demand to $2.5 million.
Maralit, my source tells me, was equally surprised at the demands of De Vera. However, Maralit who was present during the meeting at the Ambassador’s residence, denies having heard De Vera asking for $30 million, which was subsequently reduced to $2.5 million. In my phone interview with him, he said that he was in and out of the meeting for a smoke.
Maralit however confirmed that De Vera was at times on the phone seemingly consulting with someone. “Must be taking instructions,” he added. “(Di ko alam) I don’t know, every time he put down the phone, he came up with some new ideas,” Maralit added. He also said that he noticed De Vera was very uneasy during that meeting, “Parang naiiyak si Wilson.”
My source also recounted how Vitangcol snubbed the Ambassador and Inekon officials when he purposely did not meet with them for a pre-arranged official call at the GM’s office. After waiting for some 15 minutes, someone from the MRT depot faced them to say that the GM was not coming.
Not wanting to waste their time, the group of the Ambassador requested that they be brought to the depot to see for themselves the conditions of the coaches. While there, they were met by Jose “Pepe” Rodriguez, former bureau chief in the Philippines of the Spanish wire service, EFE. Rodriguez told the Ambassador that Vitangcol didn’t want to meet with the group at his office and that he would meet with them somewhere else.
Rodriguez brought them to Café Breton in Trinoma where Vitangcol, after some five minutes showed up and joined the group.
In that encounter, Vitangcol reportedly said, “Pepe and I are together. You cannot separate us.”
Joint venture proposed
My source could not remember the exact date of the meeting but someone from the group suggested forming a joint venture agreement with 60 percent of its equity to be held by a Filipino group, Vitangcol’s uncle being one of them.
The following day, the Ambassador and Inekon officials went to meet with Vitangcol at his office in Quezon City. They were greeted by Vitangcol and Wilson de Vera. Upon seeing them, Vitangcol allegedly asked, “How did you decide to pay this money and to establish the joint venture? What is your position?”
“They already had the papers and some Filipino names ready,” my source added. The group of the Ambassador was shown the door immediately after they stated their rejection of the demands and the formation of a joint venture company. “We will not go for any corruption,” my source quoted the Ambassador as saying when he rejected the joint venture. “The group was not even given any chance at all to present their [legitimate] program to Vitangcol,” he added.
Maralit reportedly arrived at the GM’s office after the Ambassador’s party had left and while on their way to their office in Makati, His Excellency received a text message from Maralit saying, “The Czechs are finished, I will not give them any project. I don’t want to speak with them anymore.”
Maralit confirmed that he sent the text message to the Ambassador only because De Vera had asked him to.
Vitangcol denies allegations
I met with Vitangcol in the morning of Friday, July 6, to get his side of the story. He refused to have the interview taped. He said he doesn’t want his name mentioned on tape. I dutifully turned off my recorder and proceeded to ask my questions.
Vitangcol denied ever having dinner with the Ambassador or having coffee with the Ambassador and Pepe Rodriguez at Trinoma. “Jose (Pepe) is just an acquaintance, not a friend,” he said. He insisted on his denials even as I pressed him about the reported dinner that was hosted by the Ambassador where he and the three others were reportedly present. I asked him, “if Maralit, de Vera and Dela Cruz are not your friends, what were they doing in the meeting? Who invited them?” He denied that he was present at that dinner.
When asked whether he had any occasion to have dinner and coffee with the Ambassador outside the MRT office, Vitangcol nonchalantly said no.
I asked him if Maralit, de Vera and Dela Cruz are his friends. He replied in the negative. “Hindi ko personal na kakilala ang mga iyan. Mga taga PH Trams (yan), mga officers,” he said. He only met them when they started to handle the maintenance of the MRT in October 2012, he added. “They are not my friends,” he emphasized. “I don’t know where these people came from. I also don’t know who their connections are. I have not gone out with them,” he added.
When I asked him why Maralit, dela Cruz and De Vera went to the Ambassador’s residence, he suggested that “the three might have some business with the foreign dignitary.” He said that Maralit is known to the Ambassador and that the two were together when they paid him a courtesy call in January or February this year.
Vitangcol also denied knowing anything about the $30 million extort try. He said that he was not present at the Ambassador’s residence when the alleged solicitation happened. Said he: “Since I was not at the Ambassador’s residence at the time the $30 million extortion reportedly happened, that should prove that I had nothing to do with it.”
He denied as well that he proposed the formation of a joint venture with Inekon where the Filipino equity holders, including his uncle, would own 60 percent.
He said he did not snub the Ambassador and the Inekon officials when they went to his office for an official call. He explained that he was out of the office at that time and the only time he came to know that there was a meeting was when his secretary called him earlier that same day.
“Why would I attend the meeting, it was arranged only by a director at the DOTC. I am higher in rank than him,” Vitangcol added.
Pepe Rodriguez joins the denial act
Jose “Pepe” Rodriguez and I met Saturday morning at the Intercon. I wanted some clarifications.
Contrary to the claim of Vitangcol, Rodriguez admitted that Vitangcol and he had dinner with the Czech Ambassador in a restaurant in Greenbelt 5 (he couldn’t recall the date) and again for coffee in Café Breton in Trinoma sometime in March this year.
He recounted the circumstances behind the meeting with Vitang col, the Ambassador and the two Inekon officials at Trinoma. He said that “Vitangcol was not at his office when these people went there and I told them ‘Let me try to see if he’s around so I can call up and if he’s around he can come’ and the guy came.” It was during that meeting that Vitangcol allegedly told the Ambassador and Inekon officials that “You cannot separate us. We are together.” Rodriguez repeated that the meeting was purely social and that there was nothing said about him and Vitangcol being inseparable.
Rodriguez, again contrary to the claim of Vitangcol, confirmed that a dinner was held at Zuni Restaurant at Greenbelt 5 in Makati with the Ambassador and Vitangcol. Others present were Manolo Maralit, Wilson de Vera and Marlo P. dela Cruz.
The document I got describes the three individuals as belonging to the party of Vitangcol. Maralit however clarified that at the time when the dinner was held, he was still part of the Ambassador’s party. He is now one of the members of the group that was awarded the contract to maintain the MRT coaches for a “temporary period of time.”
Next thursday: An attempt to silence this paper or just plain filipino culture?