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Drilon’s ‘P33B’ dud: Devious, desperate or dumb?

FOR several days last month, the Yellows’ most senior senator, Franklin Drilon, alleged that the Duterte government had a huge P33-billion stash of funds squirreled away in an obscure agency, implying massive corruption in the administration or that a war chest was being prepared for the 2022 elections.

What Drilon thought was his bombshell of an exposé was a total, colossal dud; very nearly fake news exposed. After a few days that Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez rebutted his allegations, the senator started shutting his mouth but still giving some false statements that the finance department had responded positively to his claims.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) bannered Drilon’s allegations; all of the other broadsheets totally ignored them or buried them in their inside pages. I can’t say though if the PDI was hewing to its vocation as the Yellows’ mouthpiece or if Drilon controls its editorial staff, especially since all of the bannered articles on the alleged issue was written by one senior reporter DJ Yap.

Next day, he says it is P33 billion.

Drilon perhaps thought his “expose” was devious, as he was referring to Commission on Audit reports that the Philippine International Trading Corp., headed by Lopez, had P33 billion in its books, “parked” and “sleeping” in its vaults.

Drilon even pointed out that it was the Philippine International Trading Corp (PITC), which was tasked to procure coronavirus vaccines, and that the PITC charges the government for such procurement services. His allegations, he thought, would raise suspicions that the Duterte government would overprice the vaccines, to build up a slush fund for the administration’s own diabolical purposes.

Inquirer’s banner stories on Drilon’s fake exposé

It was Drilon and his Yellow gang’s desperate effort to blacken the Duterte administration’s track record in governance, to spread the canard that it had P33 billion hidden somewhere either for the personal use of the President’s camp or for the 2022 elections. Indeed, they have big reason to be worried; only 16 months until the May 2023 elections, President Rodrigo Duterte has been proven to enjoy record public support, and his successful handling of the pandemic will be further cementing that base.

There is just no Yellow leader in the visible horizon that has the slightest chance against whoever Duterte anoints as his successor.

So dumb
I find Drilon’s allegation of the P33 billion parked in the PITC so dumb: the facts can be easily checked.

Drilon in his decades in government would have known that the PITC — even during Marcos’ time when it was organized in 1977 by his Trade Minister Roberto Ongpin — has had a corruption-free, professional reputation. Its purpose in fact was to reduce corruption in government, by having it procure equipment and supplies abroad for both the bureaucracy and the military.

An army general, for instance, could call for a bidding to procure ammunition, only for his favored suppliers to rig it to extract some money out it. In the PITC process, the general simply submits to it the specifications for the ammunition, and it scours the world for the best suppliers and undertakes a bidding for it.

Drilon should have just checked who the PTIC directors are at present, among them, other than its chairman, Secretary Lopez: Land Bank Chairman Alberto Romulo, National Economic and Development Authority Secretary (and trusted protegé of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez 3rd) Karl Kendrick Chua, Agriculture Secretary William Dar and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu. Is he saying Romulo and Cimatu are part of a conspiracy for this administration to squirrel a huge stash of funds?

So, where the heck did Drilon pluck that P33 billion in “parked funds” at PITC from? I suspect Drilon was sleepy when an overeager Yellow staffer showed him the PITC books with an item called “Customers Deposits Payable,” amounting to P32.5 billion.

Either he was devious to spin this amount hidden by the Duterte camp, desperate to manufacture an issue against the popular administration or, well, just plain dumb.

The PITC procures the equipment and supplies for the civilian bureaucracy and military, if they opt to do so. They deposit the funds for this (as approved by the budget law) not with the PITC itself but with the Land Bank (which is the reason the bank’s chairman Romulo is on its board), its interest income, if any, is remitted to the National Treasury.

The P33 billion Drilon thought he discovered hidden are in reality for the procurement projects of 70 entities, both civilian (P22.3 billion) and military (P10.3 billion).

The P7 billion funds for the Philippine Army’s projects, make up the biggest chunk of that P33 billion. As of August 2020, P1.5 billion worth of funds have been paid to suppliers and P5.5 billion are being bid. An example of those Army orders are for about a million rounds for various types of assault rifles and 60,000 combat boots. Does Drilon really think the Army would just keep silent if the funds allocated for such equipment that its soldiers need in the field were “parked”?

The so-called activists at the University of the Philippines should picket Drilon’s offices for demanding that the funds at the PITC be returned to government. Some P2.5 billion out of that P33 billion was entrusted to PITC for it to get the best prices for such projects as the rehabilitation of its academic buildings and procurement of state-of-the-art computers. About P1 billion is for the medical facilities of the UP-run Philippine General Hospital, such as CT scan machines and state-of-the art angiography systems.

Poor diabetic patients should also condemn Drilon for demanding the P33 billion funds be reverted back to the National Treasury. About P500 million of the funds the PITC is handling is for the purchase of dialysis machines and its supplies – the cost per session of P5,000 (and at least two need per week) being way beyond the poor’s purses.

This senator is just amazing, apparently in a time warp that it is still the era of the Aquinos. Even after the PITC chairman had debunked his allegations, he is calling for the PITC to be abolished. What? He wants an institution that has helped reduce corruption in government’s procurement projects abolished?

Then he claims that the finance department heeded his calls to return the “P33 billion” that is “parked” at the PTIC. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez in a Viber message to this author denied he ever said this to Drilon. He says it is standard procedure to return to the Treasury uncommitted balances, if any. Interest earned on unused funds deposited at the Land Bank, are automatically remitted to the Treasury.

What can be returned back, after all? According to the PITC’s books as of November 2020, out of the P32.6 billion government agencies entrusted to it, P20.6 billion are for projects in different stages of procurement, P12 billion awarded for delivery, and P6.6 billion interest income remitted to the National Treasury.

Does he really want the procurement of critical supplies needed by the army or by poor diabetic patients stopped?

Another Yellow senator, Francis Pangilinan, probably thinking why only Drilon is getting all that PDI publicity, asked Duterte to order the PTIC to “return the P33 billion so this would free up a huge chunk of money to buy Covid-19 vaccines.”

To repeat, the P33 billion, excluding the P6.6 billion in interest remitted to the national government, are for funds authorized by budget laws, and already spent or will be spent soon right after bidding is completed. Any funds left have to be remitted back to the Treasury.

Drilon and Pangilinan certainly remind me of that movie “Dumb and Dumber.”

This Drilon dud is hilarious, and a waste of our time, and definitely of the Senate’s which should be instead studying ways to completely stop the pandemic and stimulate the economy. Its only saving grace is that it reveals certain important things affecting our nation.

First, this episode demonstrates how a major newspaper like the PDI could be used by a senator to purvey fake news, cleverly disguised through technical auditing terms. I don’t know if the sole writer of these banner stories is too dumb or compromised that he swallowed hook-line-and-sinker Drilon’s lies. But for his garbage to be okayed by the new PDI editors, to become banner stories, is an indictment of the state of journalism today. Sad indeed is the state of Philippine mainstream journalism.

Second, how can a senator like Drilon, known for his mental prowess, twist facts with a few of his colleagues — like Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Pangilinan — jump in to back up his false claims? Is the Senate as an exclusive club more important than the nation? Sad indeed is the state of our Senate.

And third, considering that Drilon is the most senior and I would say he smartest Yellow politician, this lemon opposition is on the brink of extinction. They’ll just be wasting money if they field a presidential or vice-presidential candidates in the 2022 elections. Red party list representative Carlos Zarate or former National Democratic Front leader Satur Ocampo would have better chances of winning. In this case, that’s not sad.

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