‘That’s my area’ | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

‘That’s my area’

/ 10:14 PM February 06, 2014

You can look at it as Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s revenge, or as a new front in the war of attrition between the Aquino administration and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, or as another chapter in the continuing saga of still-controversial Port Irene—but the reality is, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s green light to include alleged wrongdoing at the Cagayan Export Zone Authority in the Enrile probe is only logical and necessary.

De Lima formed a special task force of Department of Justice prosecutors and National Bureau of Investigation agents last December, in the wake of Santiago’s sensational privilege speech accusing Enrile, her political enemy, of being “the grandfather of the pork barrel scam,” “the king of an illegal logging empire,” “an incorrigible liar and criminal,” and a “smuggler.” More recently, Santiago wrote De Lima a letter accusing Enrile of possibly using fronts to mask his personal stake in a Ceza project on which the government had spent P5.1 billion.

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“Thus,” Santiago wrote, “it appears that Enrile has used the names of his chief of staff and her family to mask his immense personal financial interests, not only in Sta. Fe Builders, but also in Sta. Elena Construction. The latter apparently served as conduit for the P5.101 billion that the government spent for the breakwater of Port Irene …”

Enrile, it must be said, took the right approach to Santiago’s latest broadside: He welcomed the investigation but at the same time denied, not only any wrongdoing, but also any financial dealings with Alice Eduardo, the president of the two companies mentioned by Santiago (“They are free to check. I never received a single centavo from her”), or indeed any notion that the corporate directorships of two relatives of his erstwhile chief of staff were illegal (“So what if they are members of the board? What’s that about?”).

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But questions remain. Why do three of the four companies associated with the P5.1-billion breakwater project in Port Irene (Sta. Elena Construction, Sta. Fe Builders and J. Vitangcol Construction) have the exact same office address (1625 Leon Guinto, Malate, Manila)? It is possible, of course, that they share an office, or are housed in the same building, but that would only sharpen questions about how Sta. Elena and J. Vitangcol ended up winning the Ceza contracts.

What is the exact relationship between Eduardo’s Sta. Fe Builders and MGNP Inc., the company that the family of Gigi Reyes, Enrile’s chief of staff at the time, established in 2003? According to Securities and Exchange Commission records, Sta. Fe was in MGNP’s directors’ list for some time.

And the most important: Did Sta. Elena’s visible ties to the Reyes family, and in particular to Enrile’s powerful chief of staff, give Eduardo an unfair advantage when bidding for Ceza’s billion-peso contracts?

This isn’t the first time that Ceza, created by a law Enrile sponsored, is engulfed in controversy. Since at least 2008, accusations on the use of Port Irene as a hub for car smuggling have been aired repeatedly, with the matter reaching even the Supreme Court. It was during one such news cycle when an expansive Enrile used language that, on reflection, may haunt him in the breakwater issue.

After the high court issued its first ruling upholding the ban on used-car importation in 2008, Enrile held a news conference to defend the thriving used-car industry in Port Irene and to criticize the ruling. But he also said: “That’s my area. I don’t want anybody to smuggle there. If there will be smuggling there,  that will be me. But modesty aside, I haven’t smuggled even a toothpick to this country.”

That is an example of what the digital generation would call “humblebrag”—like the kind of careful posturing one sees on Facebook. Six years ago, Enrile said there was no smuggling in Cagayan province, because he would not allow it. Then he bragged: “If there will be smuggling there, that will be me.” In other words, he had such control over his “area” that he could smuggle in anything if he wanted to. Then he played humble: “But modesty aside, I haven’t smuggled even a toothpick to this country.”

Taking his word for it, we can surmise that nothing important happens in his province or in Ceza without his green light. That goes for the P5.1-billion breakwater project, too. All the more reason, then, to conduct a comprehensive probe, with all possible dispatch.

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TAGS: Cagayan Export Zone Authority, Ceza, Editorial, Juan Ponce Enrile, opinion, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Smuggling
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