ALMENDRAS: THE NEW 'LITTLE PRESIDENT'



[PHOTO -
Jose Rene D. Almendras: President Benigno Aquino III swore in good friend and Ateneo classmate, Jose Rene Almendras as his Cabinet Secretary and Leyte Governor Carlos Jericho Petilla as new Energy Secretary. The oath-taking of the two officials – Almendras, then Petilla – took place at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport's departure area, radio dzBB's Mao dela Cruz reported. Almendras, who was replaced by Petilla as energy secretary, is part of the 61-member Philippine delegation to the 9th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM 9) from Nov. 5 to 6. Replacing Petilla as Leyte governor is vice governor Ma. Mimiette Bagulaya. Almendras is among the Cabinet-rank officials joining the delegation to Laos. In his departure statement, Aquino said he will push for the strengthening and protection of overseas Filipino workers’ rights and energy security at the meeting.]

MANILA, NOVEMBER 12, 2012 (INQUIRER) By Gil Cabacungan - Jose Rene Almendras belongs to the innermost of President Benigno Aquino III’s inner circle of classmates, schoolmates and buddies from Ateneo de Manila University that hangs out with the bachelor Chief Executive at social events and after work, or travels with him on his foreign trips.

Almendras leads an exclusive trio in this inner circle that includes Cristino Naguiat Jr., the chair of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) and Romy Mercado, whose family used to own Red Ribbon Bakeshop until it was bought by Jollibee Foods Corp. in 2005.

One of the President’s chums, who asked not to be named, said the Almendras clique has become a source of envy among the President’s other friends and political allies for the way it has “barricaded” itself around the President to the exclusion of others.

Of the three, only Mercado does not hold a government post—and only because of questions about his citizenship, the source said.

Almendras did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.

Karaoke sessions

The Almendras clique has been dubbed the “Apo Hiking Society”—a reference to the popular 1970s pop trio, also from Ateneo—for the way they would regale the President during karaoke sessions with their medley of the top hits of their college days.

Mr. Aquino keeps his social circle tight and he apparently enjoys being with the Almendras group because he is known not to want to spend even a minute with anyone he does not like, particularly when he wants to relax, explained another friend close to the Almendras group.

“[But] is being close to the President enough to be appointed a power broker in Malacañang after failing to generate power in his previous job?” asked the jealous presidential chum.

That “power” dig refers to the latest manifestation of Mr. Aquino’s perceived partiality for Almendras.

Almendras, who was president of Manila Water when Mr. Aquino appointed him energy secretary in 2010, was deemed to have performed disappointingly at his new job when he failed to adequately deal with the worsening power crisis in Mindanao earlier this year and his exit was widely anticipated.

During the Mindanao power summit in April, Mr. Aquino said it was unfair for some people to make Almendras their “favorite whipping boy” for the high fuel prices burdening the country and the daily blackouts buffeting Mindanao.

On the advice of Almendras, the President said the solution was for the residents and businessmen of Mindanao to pay more to get a stable and sufficient power supply. This decision was widely criticized and fueled calls for the replacement of the energy secretary.

It also fanned rumors that the President was looking to move Almendras elsewhere.

Pumped-up job

Six months later, Almendras was appointed to the now revitalized position of Cabinet Secretary, which some pundits claimed was Mr. Aquino’s way of accommodating his friend.

However, this was deemed as having been done at the expense of another close friend, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., a claim that Malacañang mouthpieces adamantly denied.

It has been pointed out that Executive Order No. 99, which Mr. Aquino signed on Oct. 31, will transform the Office of the Cabinet Secretariat from a mere facilitator of information in the Palace and integrator of the President’s initiatives as envisioned originally in its creation in 1986, into a pumped-up office of the Cabinet Secretary.

With the vastly more powerful office, Almendras can identify the priority areas in Mr. Aquino’s Philippine Development Plan, realign targets and represent the President at meetings or events; sit in all Cabinet cluster meetings and join the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) board executive committee and subcommittees on infrastructure, social work and investment; compel all state agencies and corporations to provide data and assistance to the Cabinet Secretary; and directly report to the President and run the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) and the Performance and Projects Management Office.

“Anybody that close to the President will be powerful,” said Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino.

An Aquino ally in the Senate, who asked not to be identified, described Almendras’ Palace job as “a square peg in a round hole.”

He is a technocrat in a political position, said this Senate source, pointing out a similar misfit in the appointment of Leyte Gov. Jericho Petilla and Transportation Secretary Joseph E.A. Abaya, politicians who were plucked out near the end of their 9-year elective posts to manage the largely technocratic energy and transportation portfolios, respectively.

The source believes that Almendras probably lacks the political savvy to thrive in Malacañang’s “snake pit,” having spent most of his professional career at the top of some of the country’s Top 100 corporations.

An inspired choice

But Sen. Gregorio Honasan sees Almendras’ appointment in a different light, saying the President has made an intelligent choice.

“I think Secretary Almendras is an inspired move by the President, to appoint a management expert like him for a political job. I think he will provide the Palace with more stability and the President with more focus on what needs to get the job done with as little politics as possible,” Honasan said.

Aside from the presidency of Manila Water, which he assumed in 2009, Almendras also occupied key posts in various corporations during the nearly three decades he spent in the private sector.

He was a member of the management committee and concurrent head of the Visayas Mindanao Business and Operations Transformation Group.

He was also President and CEO of Cebu Holdings and Cebu Property Ventures and Development Corp., both parts of the Ayala Land Group.

Almendras also served as treasurer for the Aboitiz Co. and Aboitiz Equity Ventures.

An acknowledged international resource person on sustainable development, Almendras earned his business management degree from Ateneo de Manila University and completed the strategic business economics program at the University of Asia and the Pacific.

Antonino does not agree that Ochoa’s role would be diminished with the entry of Almendras into Malacañang.

“His (Almendras) job is to ensure administrative efficiency in the implementation of the policies and programs of the President,” he said in a text message.

A source close t Ochoa said the so-called little president has welcomed the entry of Almendras and dismissed speculations of any rivalry between two of the President’s closest friends.

“Let’s just see how it unfolds,” said House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., another one of the President’s allies.

According to House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez, being neither with “Balay” or “Samar”—the two warring factions around the President, so named for the divided and separate campaign headquarters of Mr. Aquino in the 2010 presidential campaign—Almendras would serve as a sort of “watchdog” inside the Palace.

“I think his presence will serve to defuse the tension between the two groups. The President has said he has his eyes and ears in every department and Almendras will serve as his eyes and ears in Malacañang,” Suarez said.

COMMENTARY

Almendras’ appointment is good for the President By Emil Jurado | Posted on Nov. 09, 2012 at 12:01am

Palace Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte (photo) says that the appointment of former Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras as Cabinet Secretary does not clip the powers of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa.

She is either lying through her teeth or is completely ignorant of what goes on in Malacañang.

I have read the job description of Almendras and I am convinced that he has actually become the Deputy President. Almendras now has the power to draw the road map of the Aquino administration.

As Executive Secretary or “Little President,” Ochoa serves as some kind of Grand Central Station. Nothing reaches the President unless approved by Ochoa. All offices in Malacañang, including the Presidential Management Staff, are administratively under the Executive Secretary.

With Almendras now taking over the PMS and more importantly becoming a member of all – and I mean all – the Cabinet clusters, he now becomes a real factotum of President Aquino. This should serve the President well. Having somebody like Almendras in that position would make Mr. Aquino’s job easier and lighter.

Almendras, who is with neither the Samar nor the Balay Group, is indeed the perfect choice for Deputy President. He is a corporate executive who has worked with the top companies in the country.

The appointment of Almendras should also be good for Ochoa. The Executive Secretary’s job is really too much for one man.

***

Former Leyte Governor Carlos Jericho Petilla (photo), who replaced Almendras, knows he still has a lot to learn about power and energy. This is a good start. That means that he accepts challenges which must be addressed at once, like the need for more powers plants nationwide. He also seems aware that 10-hour blackouts in Mindanao this coming summer are to be expected.

I believe that Petilla has the credentials to meet the challenges he faces as energy secretary. He should rely on the advice of old-timers in the Philippine National Oil Co. of which he is chairman. I refer to PNOC President/CEO Tony Cailao, and others who have been there long enough to understand the mechanics of power and energy sustainability and self-reliance.

No doubt, Petilla has a lot to learn about power and energy. But I believe he can get the job done.

***

It looks like Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes doesn’t have enough courage and integrity needed to apply the same guidelines his agency adopted on disqualified party-list groups to Akbayan. Brillantes knows that Akbayan is close to the President.

Note that Akbayan members are all over Malacañang: Ronald Llamas, political adviser; Etta Rosales, Human Rights Commissioner; Joel Rocamora, chairman of the National Anti-Poverty Commission; a GSIS Trustee; and of course Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, who is running under the administration’s senatorial slate.

Marginalized and under-represented, my foot! Akbayan clearly wants to have its cake and eat it too.

If Brillantes had the guts to apply the same yardstick on everybody, then Akbayan should be disqualified as well. Unfortunately, he is beholden to Malacañang. Such makes a mockery of the straight-and-narrow path.

***

Recently, a senator and party-list congressman exchanged barbs about the President’s Bridge Program, a 19-year-old modular bridge building project that dates back all the way to the term of President Fidel V. Ramos.

The senator claimed that the project, as handled by British firm Mabey & Johnson through the congressman when he was still in the private sector, had cost the government more than it should. The cost was P11 billion. There were irregularities, he claims, hinting at payoffs to high officials.

The party-list congressman hit back, saying that the senator’s accusations came from nowhere. If anything, they only showed the senator’s bias for another contractor, Balfour Cleveland, allied with the Lopezes with which the senator is identified. Balfour is now known as Cleveland Bridges UK.

The party-list lawmaker also strongly hinted at politics being behind the senator’s tirades. The latter is reported to be supporting the former’s female opponent in the 2013 polls.

EARLIER REPORT FROM MANILA BULLETIN

Noynoy’s classmates share fond memories By ROY C. MABASA

Even if he was not on top of his class, presidential front-runner Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III always got a standing ovation and the loudest applause, even louder than the valedictorian, when his name was called during graduation rites at the Ateneo.

This was one of the fond memories shared by Aquino's classmates when the Manila Bulletin sat down with them for an interview.

Lawyer Galland Diaz was a close friend and classmate of the only son of martyred Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and the late President Corazon Aquino from preparatory school to college at the Ateneo de Manila.

“The students knew Ninoy. He was already a great man then. To make up for the absence of Noynoy’s father, who was incarcerated at that time, the students would clap for him louder than when the valedictorian was called. We had much respect to the plight of their family,” Diaz said.

Diaz said classmates always respected Noynoy, who was a very reserved and private person.

“We always harbored the belief that he would be a great man just like his father,” Diaz said.

According to Diaz, Noynoy and his family represented the embodiment of victims of martial law.

“They were the number one victims of a tyrannical rule. What we only watch on television Noy's family lived it on a day-to-day basis,” Diaz said.

Lawyer Chito Cruz, meanwhile, pointed out what he most admired in Aquino is his strength of character.

“We all knew what was happening to his dad, but we never saw him give in to the pressure and the problems they are facing, the hardships his family had to endure. He was so courageous. It seems like he became a man faster than most of our age,” said Diaz, a close friend and college classmate of Aquino.

Diaz recounted that when they were teenagers, Noynoy always saw to it that he went home before curfew.

“He can't afford to be caught. He never wanted to be apprehended during martial law. Because he understood the responsibility he had to carry. Because when he gets caught, there is a big probability that he will go to jail for a long time for violating the law because he is the son of Ninoy,” Cruz said.

Cruz said Aquino's heart is in the right place and that is what the people saw in him.

“He is sincere and he follows his heart that is what I admire in him,” he said.

Lawyer Amor Amorado, a friend of Aquino during college, believes the path has been laid down for Noynoy to tread.

“Noynoy has no alternative but to follow that path made out for him,” Amorado.

Diaz, Cruz and Amorado joined the PiNoy Lawyers group that became the legal arm of Team Aquino-Roxas, the Liberal Party tandem in the country’s first automated elections.

The group also served as the LP’s watchdogs to protect the party’s votes by deploying members all over the country to make sure that votes are correctly counted and canvassed.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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