Amb. Cuisia’s board seats: Did he just follow del Rosario’s precedent?

Consul Elmer Cato, press officer of the Philippine embassy in the US wrote this newspaper contesting several points of my column 21 October 2013 entitled “Aquino’s part-time ambassador to the U.S.”

I cannot contest Cato’s claims on the achievements of Ambassador Jose Cuisia, since his letter—mimicking President Aquino—puts all the credit for the post’s achievement to his present boss, without a word of acknowledgement to his predecessors’ or other embassy officials’ work. In fact, Fil-Ams in Washington as well as foreign affairs department officials are worried that Cuisia seems to be relying too much on the deputy chief of mission in his past three years.

I congratulate Cuisia though if Cato’s boasts are accurate, and I sincerely just hope his achievements go beyond getting aging, hand-me-down US Coast Guard cutters and organizing social clubs. Still, the litmus test of effectiveness of our ambassador to the US is his success in getting the US President to visit the Philippines. We’d settle for state secretary John Kerry. Good luck.

My basis for my report that Mr. Cuisia seems to be in Manila nearly every month are the annual reports of SM Prime Holdings and Phinma, in which he is a vice chairman and board member, versions of which are submitted as notarized compliance reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission. A collage of the two reports on their board meetings accompanies this article.

Busy ambassador: Cuisia’s board meetings in two of his companies in 2012. (Source:Phinma and SM Prime annual reports.)

Busy ambassador: Cuisia’s board meetings in two of his companies in 2012. (Source:Phinma and SM Prime annual reports.)

For 2012 Cuisia was reported in the annual reports to be present in board meetings of the two companies in February 17, March 22, April 24, May 14, June 11, July 27 and 30, October 29, November 13, and December 12. That’s nine of the 12 months last year.

I am quite sure Cuisia also attends the board meetings of the seven other firms he is a director of, especially in Chevrolet’s Philippine distributor where he is the chairman.

I assumed the two firms’ annual reports were accurate. There was no qualification in the report, as there usually is in other such reports I have seen, that Cuisia was present via teleconferencing.

Cato knows full well, when he claimed that I should have checked immigration records, that these are confidential unless asked for by the authorities for a criminal investigation. I’d be grateful if Cuisia takes the trouble to get those travel records from immigration.

I suggest Cato review his foreign service manual or he’ll get the ambassador in other legal trouble.

He writes that Cuisia “takes part in these (board) meetings via video or teleconferencing from his residence during his private time…” Cato as a career diplomat should know that an ambassador — unless in very rare cases when he’s rich enough to get a summer or alternate home — doesn’t have a “private residence” in the country of his posting. Technically, the ambassador’s residence is even the “Embassy” and the building where his offices are, the “Chancellery”.

Cuisia’s “residence” in Washington is part of Philippine government premises, with all its utilities paid for out of embassy, taxpayers’ money.

Is Cato saying that Cuisia has been using the telephone services, expensive overseas tele-conferencing services even, that are paid by the Philippine government for his board meetings with SM Prime, Phinma, and seven other corporations?

But these are just details. The more important point in my column which seems to be beyond Cato’s comprehension is the anomaly—legally or ethically—that our ambassador to the most important diplomatic post continues to work in the board of nine Philippine corporations, two of which are conglomerates. He is even a member of four committees of these boards, in SM Prime in its Audit Committee.

By no stretch of logic can he claim that his involvement in these nine corporations doesn’t distract him from his work at such an important post as the US. Taxpayers are paying diplomats to be full time at their work, and not as part-time ambassadors.

The Philippine Ambassador is the President’s alter ego abroad, Cato says. True. Even if the Constitution hypothetically allowed so, how would it look if the President were a director or a board member of ABS-CBN Corp or Hacienda Luisita?

I don’t think Cato is qualified to comment on whether Cuisia or not “used his position to give the companies he is connected with any undue advantage”—unless he is the ambassador’s aide in those companies. Does Cato really believe that companies like SM Prime, Phinma, cement conglomerate Holcim, Chevrolet’s distributor in the Philippines, and a call center company doesn’t have business dealings in the US, where Cuisia is ambassador of?

Cato’s main argument for his boss, is that after all, Cuisia’s involvement in the nine private firms was allowed by “expressed authorization from no less then the Secretary of Foreign Affairs for him to sit in these private sector corporations.” Can I ask for copy of such authorization? I understand though that only the President can authorize an ambassador to do so.

I had been told, contrary to what I wrote in my 21 October column that Secretary Alberto del Rosario also continued his directorships in Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co and in several other firms when he was ambassador to the US. Did Cuisia demand of del Rosario: If you could it, I can too!

Cato’s claim that I “failed to check his facts before writing” the column is false. I emailed Cuisia Friday (Washington D.C. time) to ask him to comment on the points I raised in my article, and clearly emphasized that I needed the reply for my column which will appear Monday.

I emailed these to the following addresses: washington.pe@dfa.gov.ph, washingtonpe@philippinesusa.org, and washingtonpe2010@gmail.com.

I even used the email form of the embassy’s website, which is so difficult to use, requiring you to give confidential information before you can send a message. It is even downright stupid, as it requires a US telephone address to be processed. (I used the Embassy’s own telephone number.)

Cato must have left his work for the weekend too early that he missed my emails. I do suggest though that he or his staff be issued a Blackberry or whatever so that he or his staff are alerted for any email sent to the embassy, so they won’t miss an emergency. This is SOP in most embassies, as an embassy would need to respond quickly to emergencies of Filipino nationals.

In comparison, I emailed officials of the Social Security Commission—located in Quezon City—for certain queries I posted them, and got replies the day after.

Or maybe Cuisia is too busy in his nine directorships to bother about making the Embassy’s communication system efficient?