This newspaper joined its voice to the chorus asking for the Senate blue ribbon committee to investigate the allegations of former Iloilo provincial administrator Manuel Mejorada that the Iloilo Convention Center, a favorite project of Senate President Franklin Drilon’s, was grossly overpriced. Of the four arguments we presented, the last was the most important.
“Last, but certainly not least, Drilon is a stalwart of the Aquino administration, and thus a symbol of the administration’s anticorruption self-identity, the so-called ‘tuwid na daan.’ The straight path means not engaging in corrupt acts, and also prosecuting the corrupt with the full force of the law. For these reasons, the Senate blue ribbon committee should live up to its name, as the committee on accountability of public officers and investigations, and hold the Senate President to account.”
Last week, the committee did just that. But Drilon and the Cabinet secretaries implicated in the alleged overprice gave a robust defense of their decisions; it was Mejorada who came up embarrassingly short.
He started with a grandiose declaration: He came to the Senate, he said, to “unravel a complex fraudulent transaction.” But if there was anything or anyone who unraveled, it was Mejorada, a former ally of Drilon’s.
He described himself, risibly, as “an investigative journalist.” Why? “I rely on public records, especially online sources.” This was just a fancy way to say he googled the information he was about to present to the committee.
When he was asked to substantiate his allegation of overpricing, he said: “The original information that I obtained about the project which was gathered by various sources during the briefing held during the unveiling for Iloilo Convention Center, and it’s in Wikipedia, too, based on published sources, is 6,400 square meters. That’s what I used in computing that at P679 million to complete phase 1 and 2, this would reach P106,226 per square meter.” (In fact, as Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson testified, the total floor area of the convention center was almost double Mejorada’s estimate: not 6,400 sq m but 11,693.79 sq m.)
Where did he get the estimate of the building cost? “My original information is Wikipedia.”
He also added that, in lieu of documents, he had heard rumors from architects in Iloilo: “Because of the figures involved here, architects in Iloilo are afraid to speak out but they whispered to me.”
Wikipedia and whispers: Not exactly the right way to unravel a fraudulent transaction, complex or otherwise. Three hours into the hearing, Drilon could correctly say, “Is there evidence that someone made money? We’ve been meeting here for three hours but I haven’t heard how the money was stolen. Only conclusions from Wikipedia.”
This is not to say that the hearing did not turn up anything potentially provocative. The donation of the property on which the convention center is being constructed, by real estate giant Megaworld Corp., may have raised some eyebrows. The center is located inside Megaworld’s Iloilo Business Park, and situated between two Megaworld hotels. At one point in the hearings, Sen. Sergio Osmeña III pressed Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. on whether the convention center fit into Megaworld’s master plan.
“Megaworld has a master plan and I would suppose that the Department of Tourism checked out this plan in order to make sure that the convention center would be in conformity with the master plan of Megaworld,” the senator from business-friendly Cebu said. Based on Jimenez’s explanation, Osmeña concluded that the donation was conditioned on the acceptance of Megaworld’s master plan. But: “Nothing wrong with that. We just want to get it right,” Osmeña said.
The first committee hearing on the alleged overpricing of the Iloilo Convention Center showed that the complaint for plunder was based on mere hearsay, that there was no evidence of any overprice, and that there was no showing of corruption. Would that Vice President Jejomar Binay, who faces exactly the same kind of controversy, also show up before the same committee, and answer any and all questions about the allegedly overpriced Makati City Hall Building 2.
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