By Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo, June 10 2019; Business Mirror

Image Credit to Philippine Star

A year after Wanda Corazon Tulfo-Teo and actor Cesar Montano were asked to resign for alleged anomalies committed while at their respective government posts, efforts to charge anyone directly responsible for questionable projects and recover millions in pesos in taxpayers’ money appear to have been stymied.

Tulfo-Teo was told to step down as secretary of the Department of Tourism (DOT) and Montano as chief operating officer of the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB).

Edwin R. Enrile, undersecretary for legal and special concerns and chief of staff, told the BusinessMirror the DOT “can’t ask them to return the money because that would mean we’ve already decided on their guilt.”

Enrile emphasized it isn’t the DOT’s job to determine the innocence or guilt of former government officials as well as other participants in the alleged anomalies but the Sandiganbayan’s, the special appellate court that handles graft and corruption cases.

A notice of disallowance was issued by the Commission on Audit (COA) for the P120-million advertising contract between the DOT and PTV4, of which P60 million in ad spots were placed in Kilos Pronto, a block timer program produced by Bitag Media Unlimited Inc. owned by Teo’s brother, Ben Tulfo.

“Respondents have appealed, so it is still pending,” Enrile said. “For administrative and criminal cases, this is currently being handed by the filed investigation Office of the Ombudsman, which has yet to release its findings. It’s still under investigation.”

Based on the information his office gathered, the DOT legal chief said documents pertaining to the contract are being reviewed and witnesses are being interviewed.

The COA just recently issued a notice of suspension on the P320-million “Buhay Carinderia Redefined” project contracted by the TPB and event organizer Marylindbert International Inc. Montano alleged the latter’s owner, Erlinda Legaspi, is a good friend of Teo.

“The respondent was given a chance to explain,” said Enrile. “TPB has sent three demand letters to Marylindbert seeking the refund of VAT [value-added tax] and unspent expenses as of the time of suspension. Marylindbert has not replied.”

The DOT official added, “the OGCC [Office of Government Corporate Counsel], upon request of TPB, has issued an office order creating a task force to handle the case.”

The project was suspended upon the takeover of Bernadette Romulo Puyat as DOT secretary on May 14, 2018. However, one month later, Marylindbert still attempted to carry out Buhay Carinderia activities. An investigation by this paper showed the TPB paid Marylindbert P80.64 million in full, for the first phase of the P320-million project, barely before the project had even begun. (See, “Culinary tourism takes a hit as probe unearths how Buhay Carinderia ‘redefined’ TPB approval route,” in the BusinessMirror, May 22, 2018.)

Despite repeated attempts to get clarifications and details on alleged anomalous projects at the DOT and TPB from May 6 to June 6, 2019, the COA’s Public Information Office headed by Jonathan Beltran has been unable to issue any details on the cases.

“COA-TPB has issued a Notice of Suspension for TPB projects,” an unnamed officer who signed a May 20 e-mail as “PIO,” said. However, PIO failed to say what these projects were.

The unnamed PIO again e-mailed back on June 6, saying: “I cannot give information on what projects has received notice of suspension since it’s ongoing. The agency is given a number of days to reply/answer the notice.”

COA, likewise, issued a number of audit observation memoranda to the DOT in 2018. One of the memoranda was the $2-million hosting of the “World’s Strongest Man” competition, the contract of which was signed by Teo and awarded to Minimax Advertising and Production Corp., the Philippine representative of IMG Productions Llc., which owns the rights to the competition. DOT sources had alleged that the original project cost was only $1 million, and that government contracts should not be in dollars but in the local currency. Also, the funds available for the project was considerably less than the total project cost.

Last week, Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra said his agency was ready to assist the Office of Ombudsman in investigating the advertising contract in an effort to recover the P60 million paid to Tulfo’s company. The contract was raised anew after Tulfo’s brother, Erwin, was vilified by alumni of the Philippine Military Academy for lambasting Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Joselito D. Bautista, a retired army general, on his radio show. This has led to a pullout of the military and police escorts of the Tulfo siblings, including that of eldest brother and special envoy to China, Ramon.