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Editorial

Questions for Diokno

/ 05:08 AM January 09, 2019

House Majority Leader Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. began the year with a public hearing in Naga City on the “questionable practices” of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

Among his revelations was that a fledgling construction company owned by Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s in-laws and its “dummies” allegedly bagged as much as P10 billion worth of infrastructure projects allotted for Sorsogon in 2018.

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If Andaya is to be believed, the company, called Aremar Construction Corp., partnered with Bulacan-based CT Leoncio Construction and Trading and seven other companies and managed to corner several juicy contracts from the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Documents obtained by the Inquirer show that Aremar was awarded P551 million worth of contracts in Sorsogon in 2018. Three road projects are in Casiguran, whose mayor is Jose Edwin Hamor. Hamor is married to Sorsogon Vice Gov. Ester Hamor, who happens to be the mother of Diokno’s son-in-law, Romeo Sicat Jr.

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Diokno and the Hamors have dismissed any suggestions of impropriety. The mayor claims he did not even know the owner of CT Leoncio, and that he has no hand in the business dealings of Aremar, which lists Sicat Jr. and the Hamors’ daughter Maria Minez as among the directors.

Incredibly, according to a report in this paper, “he was neither aware that his stepson was married to Diokno’s daughter, Charlotte Justine.”

Records from the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, show that the mayor was the biggest shareholder of Aremar when it was incorporated in 2014.

Given his links to the Hamors, the issue against Diokno is evident, according to Andaya: “Clearly, there’s a conflict of interest on his part. His daughter is the legal wife of the co-owner [of Aremar].”

The free-for-all that has erupted between Congress and Malacañang over the still-unpassed budget is an unseemly spectacle, and one may question Andaya et al.’s motives for their campaign against Diokno.

Lawmakers like him have to account for the brazen pork-barrel insertions in the budget in defiance of the law’s intent against pork. But, likewise, Diokno must submit to the same test of transparency and probity.

What has been uncovered so far about the suspicious Bicol transactions — that a company related to him could have cornered government contracts worth hundreds of millions — deserves an exhaustive, straightforward answer rather than the indignant defense of blanket denials, dodges and misdirections he has resorted to so far.

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In fact, because Diokno is the budget overseer, the caretaker of the people’s money no less, the matter becomes even more pointed. Yet what has he offered so far by way of explanation? On Andaya’s charges: “His accusations are illusory. The numbers are wrong and the narrative he’s selling is not grounded on facts.” To questions by House members: “I’ve served three presidents; I’m known for my integrity.”

Fine, so what then could be a perfectly commonsensical, aboveboard explanation for the fact that the company owned by his in-laws ended up bagging over half a billion worth of public projects in 2018?

The conflict-of-interest red flags raised by this case appear all too obvious — except, apparently, to Diokno, who maintains that his department could not have “favored” any contractor since it is not involved in awarding contracts or implementing projects.

More disingenuous talk; does Diokno think the public is unaware how influence and suasion, at the very least, play an ineluctable part in the government machinery? His protestations of impartiality do not clarify, but only loop back to, the main issue: How the dickens then did Aremar get so lucky?

That luck appears to be working even now, because, even while this issue cries out for an honest-to-goodness, top-to-bottom probe — not least because Diokno’s boss himself has said he wouldn’t tolerate even a whiff of corruption in his administration — Diokno has found allies willing to wave the seeming anomaly away, such as Senate President Tito Sotto.

“We have too many things on our plate to join the issues being raised,” said Sotto, as if vetting the budget — making sure every cent of the people’s money is properly and honestly used — is more an inconvenience and not the chief task lawmakers like him are mandated to do. No wonder some end up luckier than most.

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TAGS: Aremar Construction Corp., Benjamin Diokno, Inquirer editorial, Rolando Andaya Jr., Sorsogon infrastructure projects
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