(STAR) By Aurea Calica - The World Bank is willing to brief government officials, including senators, on its findings regarding anomalies in the awarding of WB-funded road building contracts.

The World Bank offer came after a dressing down – in absentia – from some senators last week who accused the lending institution at a public hearing of not backing up its claims with solid evidence. The WB report implicated First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo and some officials as well as three Filipino contractors in bidding irregularities.

Bert Hofman, World Bank country director for the Philippines and East Asia and Pacific Region, relayed the institution’s willingness to share more information with officials in a letter to Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago.

Santiago chairs the Senate economic affairs committee, which is spearheading the Senate probe on the alleged road project anomalies.

“Following our institutional arrangements, we have indicated to the authorities that we can, if they so invite, meet to provide further informal technical briefings and that we would welcome the presence of senators interested in this matter at such a briefing,” Hofman said in a letter yesterday.

“The Department of Finance is aware of these arrangements. In addition, the head of our Institutional Integrity Department has offered to meet with the Ombudsman, if this would be helpful in furthering her investigation,” Hofman’s letter said.

The World Bank blacklisted three Filipino contractors – one permanently – for allegedly colluding with officials in rigging the bids for infrastructure projects. Permanently banned was E.C De Luna Construction.

“The World Bank’s sole purpose for its investigation and sanctions proceedings in any country is an administrative one aimed at protecting the funds entrusted to us. Because we provide assistance by means of loans, this process helps to protect Philippines’ taxpayers’ money,” he said.

“This administrative process clearly differs from the legal and legislative process that the countries’ authorities may decide to pursue,” he pointed out.

“Allow me to reiterate my sincere desire to support the processes ongoing in the Philippines on this important development issue.”

Santiago, who granted the motion of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to subpoena Hofman, said the Senate would now have to invite the World Bank official and his staff to an informal technical briefing.

Santiago also said the Senate should authorize the release of all World Bank documents submitted to it by the Ombudsman and that the Senate must arrive at a consensus on whether the rules on evidence should be observed at committee hearings.

It was Santiago who invoked the rules on evidence and said that without the World Bank documents, there is nothing with which to build a case against Mr. Arroyo and the others implicated in the alleged road project anomalies.

But Hofman stressed in his letter that “referral to the authorities is to enable them to take the information and documents referred to them and investigate the matter under the domestic law as they deem appropriate.”

“For the World Bank, in cases of debarment investigations, we can fully inform the official and the office that represents the country in our Board of Governors,” he said.

“In case of the Philippines this is the Department of Finance and as subsequently designated by DOF, the Office of the Ombudsman, as the responsible agency for possible follow up in investigating whether Philippine laws have been broken,” he added.

“We have fully informed both agencies, provided them with the Referral Report and offered our assistance in terms of follow up meetings on various occasions,” Hofman said.

Formal request

After parrying accusations of partiality and of sitting on cases involving administration officials, the Office of the Ombudsman is now being asked officially to investigate the alleged involvement of the First Gentleman in the bidding anomalies.

Lawyer Ernesto Francisco Jr., in a “Sworn Request for Investigation,” said President Arroyo’s husband should be probed for possible criminal liability for plunder, violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and even bribery.

Francisco said an investigation by the Ombudsman should include former Department of Public Works and Highways secretary Florante Soriquez and other DPWH officials like Assistant Regional Director Tito Miranda and Project Director Lope Adriano, among others.

He said contractor Eduardo C. de Luna, owner of WB-blacklisted firm EC De Luna Construction, should also be investigated.

“I am very disgusted by the controversy over what the World Bank described as the alleged ‘institutionalized cartel replete with collusive tendering, bid rigging, price fixing, and the routine payment of bribes and kickbacks’ in World Bank-funded road projects in the Philippines,” Francisco told the Ombudsman.

“Needless to state, this is another national embarrassment which we, as a people, have to correct if we do not want ourselves and our nation relegated to the odious position of being one of the most corrupt in the world,” he stressed.

Francisco was one of those who sued Mr. Arroyo in connection with the botched NBN-ZTE scandal.

Francisco said he is worried the House and Senate investigations, supposedly done “in aid of legislation,” might “end up extolling the personalities, high government officials and moneyed businessmen involved, on the one hand, while condemning the institution that blew the whistle, so to speak, as the culprit, on the other.”

He advised the Ombudsman to request the World Bank for certified true copies of all documents concerning the National Road Improvement and Management Project-1 (NRIMP-1) including those related to fund disbursements.

He said the World Bank should also be asked for certified true copies of all documents related to the investigation into the road project anomalies by its Department of Institutional Integrity or INT.

INT, in its report, cited “direct evidence of fraudulent or corrupt practices such as the submission of fraudulent documents or the payment of bribes derived from admissions of participants or the direct testimony of witnesses.”

Francisco said the World Bank should also be asked to allow the use of its documents and testimonies in any investigation or in prosecuting corrupt officials.

He said it should also be asked to help the anti-graft body locate the confidential witnesses “who confirmed the existence of the cartel and provided details on its practices.”

“This move is designed to make sure that the Ombudsman cannot just dismiss the World Bank bid rigging issue on the pretext that there is no evidence or complaint. This is also similar to what I did in the NBN-ZTE (case) where my sworn request for investigation subsequently ripened into a criminal complaint,” Francisco told The STAR.

Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez earlier cited World Bank restrictions in the report to justify the delay in her agency’s launching of an inquiry into the bidding anomalies.

Miriam told to inhibit

Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros Baraquel asked Santiago to inhibit herself from the Senate inquiry, saying her closeness to President Arroyo and the First Gentleman has cast doubts on her impartiality.

“There is no doubt that she’s a bright lawyer, but lawyer for whom? Unfortunately, her closeness to the First Family is casting doubts on her capacity to hold an impartial inquiry on the issue,” she said.

She said the senator “is being extremely legalistic to the point that she seems to be favoring FG Mike Arroyo already.”

“This is not a legal trial. The Senate inquiry should focus on shedding light on allegations in the World Bank report,” she said.

“So far, what we are seeing is that the panel is heading towards the opposite direction,” Baraquel said.

Baraquel also accused Santiago and Gutierrez of “acting like twins doing a synchronized dance to clear FG Arroyo’s name.”

“This is curious because both women are heading powerful institutions. They could compel the release of documents that could shed light on the anomaly. They could even call on FG Arroyo to clear his name,” she said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, for his part, said it was his search for truth and not politics that motivated him to press for further investigation of the case.

Meanwhile, DPWH Assistant Secretary Jaime Pacanan, head of the department’s fact-finding committee investigating the anomaly, said his group would still push through with its probe despite reports of the World Bank’s admission of “no solid proof” of its “collusion” allegation. With Michael Punongbayan, Jess Diaz, Evelyn Macairan, and Artemio Dumlao

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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