Solon seeks probe into DFA passport machine

March 5, 2009

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20090305-192431/Solon-seeks-probe-into-DFA-passport-machine

By Lira Dalangin-Fernandez
Reporter
INQUIRER.net

Posted date: March 05, 2009

MANILA, Philippines – An investigation into the awarding by the Department of Foreign Affairs of its P859-million machine readable passport and visa project to a French company, is being sought by a lawmaker at the House of Representatives.

The Francois-Charles Oberthure Fiduciaire is the same firm that printed two years ago the P100 “Arrovo bills, referring to the error on the name of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In filing House Resolution 1038, Anakpawis partylist Representative Rafael Mariano asked the committee on foreign affairs to conduct the inquiry to find out the “validity and wisdom” of the award and to determine if the shift from a build-operate-transfer mode of procurement to a government-funded project was in accordance with existing laws.

The project was originally awarded in January 2000 to BCA International, a 100% Filipino-owned corporation, but it never got to implement the project because the DFA sat on it.

In 2005, the department rescinded the contract with BCA on questions of its financial capacity.

In June 2008, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas approved the post qualification bid of P859.7 million by Francois-Charles Oberthure Fiduciaire for the “supply, delivery, and commissioning of a system for the production of Electronic Passport Booklets” and consequently, the Notice of Award was given to the firm. This time, the undertaking would be funded by the DFA Passport Reserve Fund.

“There is a need to inquire what were the DFA’s compelling reasons for abandoning the original BOT scheme in undertaking the Machine Readable Passport and Visa project (MRPV) which would have entailed no cost to the government, particularly on whether the shift in the mode of undertaking the MRPV project to one funded by the government was more beneficial and advantageous to the Philippine government than the cost-free BOT scheme undertaken by the BCA International,” Mariano said in his resolution.

“There is a need to inquire whether it has become an unwritten but official policy of the government to favor foreign firms in the award of government projects to the detriment of firms which are 100 % Filipino ownership,” Mariano said.

He said the French firm was the same company that supplied some 80 million P100 bills with the misspelled surname of the President. The same firm was involved in the $34-million contract to supply passport-making equipment to Kenya, which its government scrapped due to the absence of a bidding process, Mariano added.

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Abu Sayyaf’s new generation threatens Philippines

February 22, 2009

02/22/2009 | 06:06 PM

MANILA, Philippines — Not long ago, the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group was dismissed as all but dead, thanks to a much-heralded joint effort against terrorism by the U.S. and the Philippine military.

Now there is fear that the Abu Sayyaf may be coming back.

The group is blamed for a spate of kidnappings in recent months, including the latest — that of a Sri Lankan peace worker on southern Basilan Island earlier this month. Abu Sayyaf raised more than $1.5 million last year through ransoms, and its ranks rose to 400 members last year from 383 in 2007, a confidential government report noted. Also, new leaders are rising to take the place of those captured by U.S.-backed troops.

The rebirth of Abu Sayyaf raises renewed fears of terrorism. So far Abu Sayyaf has focused on raising money through kidnappings, but it is likely to pursue high-profile assaults to reassert its stature as a terror group, the report noted. Abu Sayyaf has also allowed foreign militants, mostly members of the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, to make the region their home.

“As long as they are there, they can provide safe haven for Jemaah Islamiyah where they can train the next generation of bombers and terrorists. That’s why they’re a threat,” said Col. William Coultrup, who heads the U.S. counterterrorism forces in Mindanao.

Abu Sayyaf, which means “Father of the Swordsman” in Arabic, was founded in 1991 in Basilan province and supported by Asian and Middle Eastern radical groups. It came to the attention of the U.S. in 2001, when the group kidnapped three Americans among 20 people taken from a tony Philippine resort.

Abu Sayyaf was also thought to be sheltering Indonesian members of Jemaah Islamiyah, including Umar Patek and Dulmatin. The two are suspected of masterminding the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people in 2002, and then fleeing to Abu Sayyaf strongholds in Mindanao to evade an anti-terror crackdown in Indonesia.

The Phillipine military did not have the funds for a full-out assault against Abu Sayyaf, so American troops came in with weapons, combat training and surveillance. They helped rein in a brief but brutal era of mass kidnappings, bombings and beheadings by the militants. Washington has poured millions of dollars into the Philippines in military assistance and civic projects.

Amid its problems in Iraq, Washington hailed the success against Abu Sayyaf, and life and commerce bounced back on Basilan. But in 2004, Abu Sayyaf and Indonesian militants were blamed for a bombing that ignited an inferno in a ferry near Manila Bay, killing 116 people. Abu Sayyaf also espoused a more violent “jihad,” or holy war, in Mindanao, where more than 120,000 people have died in decades-long Muslim separatist unrest.

Last year Abu Sayyaf kidnapped at least 12 people in Jolo, Basilan and three other southern provinces, including a TV news team, according to the government report. Several captives have been ransomed off since, but 10, including three Red Cross workers taken on Jan. 15, remain in Abu Sayyaf’s hands. Snatched from a car at gunpoint on Sulu province’s Jolo Island after inspecting a jail water project, the missing Red Cross workers — two Europeans and a Filipina — are being held in the lush jungle.

On Feb. 13, Sri Lankan peace activist Umar Jaleel was snatched from his Basilan residence.

Abu Sayyaf’s comeback is led by a new generation of leaders, said Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, who heads a Jolo anti-terrorism task force.

“All the Abu Sayyaf’s ideologues are dead, the ones left behind are bandits,” Sabban said. “The support they’re counting on from other countries has vanished. Now, everybody’s on his own, trying to raise money through kidnappings. They say they’re fighting for a cause? No way.”

Out of the 24 original leaders and militants whose faces were on a wanted poster widely distributed across the sprawling archipelago, only nine remain at large. The rest are dead or in jail, their faces marked off one by one. Abu Sayyaf’s oldest, ailing commander, one-armed Radulan Sahiron, is missing, and vanished after a Dec. 7 clash that killed his cherished white horse, according to Sabban.

Among the new leaders is the colorful Albader Parad, who was just a scrawny foot soldier with an M203 grenade launcher dangling from his small frame nine years ago. Parad was involved in a 2000 mass kidnapping from the Sipadan resort in nearby Malaysia that netted 10 Europeans and 11 other people. When the kidnappers allowed a group of journalists to visit the hostages, Parad swiped the watch of an Associated Press reporter.

A military dossier seen by the AP described Parad as coming from a poor family where most relatives belonged to the Abu Sayyaf or had links to it. He has amassed 20 million pesos (more than $400,000) from a string of early 2000 abductions, some of which was invested by relatives in passenger transport and coconut farmlands, according to the military dossier.

“We want the military to pull out. If not, we won’t talk to anyone,” Parad said in a video aired in early February by the ABS-CBN news network, boldly showing his face to the camera while a bunch of masked gunmen stood behind him in the woods near Jolo’s Indanan township.

Behind the scenes, there are widespread reports that Parad is privately seeking money to free the hostages.

Parad was one of the earliest new Abu Sayyaf commanders to emerge, but he has plenty of violent company at the top. He has been joined by at least three others, according to the government security threats report and a military official.

The report said two new commanders now lead their own factions — Nurhassan Jamiri from Basilan and Sulaiman Pattah from Jolo, both predominantly Muslim provinces in the country’s most destitute region.

Jamiri, who is in his 20s, has been linked to kidnappings and the beheading of 10 marines during a 2007 clash. Pattah, a one-armed militant, gained notoriety for allegedly helping lead last year’s kidnapping of popular TV news anchor Ces Drilon and her two crewmen in Jolo.

Another new commander is Furuji Indama, marine Lt. Col. Leonard Vincent Teodoro told the AP. He helps lead the same faction as Jamiri and has been blamed for kidnappings and other terrorist attacks in Basilan, said Teodoro, who has overseen assaults against the two.

Even the government concedes that the battle against one of Southeast Asia’s most violent groups is far from over.

“I think they’ve morphed into something else, just like … criminal gangs,” Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro told the AP. – AP


Migrants advocacy group alarmed over new OFW deployment policy

January 23, 2009

MARK JOSEPH H. UBALDE, GMANews.TV
01/23/2009 | 06:29 PM
MANILA, Philippines — A group of cause-oriented groups for overseas Filipino workers has expressed concern over the government’s new policy to aggressively market Filipinos for jobs abroad.

The Philippine Migrants Watch (PMRW) said the new policy is embodied in Administrative Order No. 247, which orders the Cabinet to support the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) “so it can aggressively deploy” Filipinos without much “institutional hurdles.”

Such a policy “is tantamount to promoting migration as economic tool,” said Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy and a member of PMRW.

The alliance said the added function of the POEA is against the government’s policy of non-dependence on OFW deployment as a solution to save the economy.

The Philippine government’s policy under Republic Act 8042 or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 on overseas labor says that overseas employment should not be promoted by the government.

“While recognizing the significant contribution of Filipino migrant workers…the State does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development,” reads RA 8042’s declaration of policies.

Sana, who is a member of the PMRW, fears that the regulatory function of the POEA would be set aside to make room for the aggressive marketing of OFWs in other countries.

“AO 247 is a written and explicit evidence that (the government is) dependent on OFW remittances,” Sana said.

The POEA, which is under the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment, was created in 1982 by Executive Order No. 797 and is mandated to regulate the overseas employment industry, facilitate the employment of aspiring OFWs and protect their rights. (See other core functions in this link)

PMRW added that AO 247 is also against PGMA’s previously backed policy of strengthening the regulatory function of the POEA.

According to the group, the President’s instruction was contrary to the “intent and spirit” of Republic Act 9422 which strengthens the regulatory functions of the POEA thereby repealing Sections 29 and 30 of RA 8042 on deregulation.

“The President was with us in this campaign which took 11 years before RA9422 was finally enacted in 2006. She certified this bill as urgent in the 12th and 13th Congress but now, she is setting it aside in favor of aggressive marketing of our people overseas,” PMRW said.

The signing of AO 247 came on the heels of the global financial crisis, which economists fear would result to the economic recession and more retrenchments for Filipinos in the country and abroad.

The $15-billion annual remittance from OFWs is tagged as the lifeblood of the Philippine economy, boosting the country’s dollar reserves. The global economic crisis has threatened the jobs of thousands of Filipinos employed in export-dependent countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, which have felt the brunt of the US-led crisis.

“Is this the way for government to respond to the global economic meltdown?” PMRW asked in a statement, “Should we not be doing the paradigm shift by veering away now from an economic dictum that is quite dependent on external markets?”

Recruitment consultant Emmanuel Geslani, however, told GMANews.TV that the government simply has to admit that it cannot survive without the OFWs’ contributions.

Geslani said that RA 8042 should be reconciled in order to justify the new mandate of the POEA.

Despite the new policy, Geslani believes the POEA would not give up its task to protect Filipinos in securing jobs abroad. – GMANews.TV


News: ‘Mabuhay,’ says Obama to Filipinos on Independence Day

June 13, 2008

By Veronica Uy
INQUIRER.net

Posted date: June 13, 2008

MANILA, Philippines — Acting very presidential, the United States’ Democratic Party’s presidential nominee US Senator Barack Obama on Thursday (Chicago time) greeted Filipinos “Mabuhay (long live)” on the Philippines’ Independence Day.
“Today, I extend my warm wishes to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the people of the Philippines. Let us join with Filipinos worldwide and Filipino Americans to celebrate Philippine Independence Day. Mabuhay!” he said.

Obama’s statement, available at the website of Asian Americans for Obama, acknowledged the contribution of Filipino veterans who fought in the Second World War.

“During World War II, Filipino and American troops fought bravely together under some of the most trying conditions suffered by any forces during that conflict, forging a historic bond between our two nations and their people. Filipinos displayed great courage alongside American soldiers at Bataan and Corregidor, only to be denied their just benefits by our government,” he said.

He thus urged members of the US Congress to pass the Veterans’ Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007 which would honor the service of all US veterans, including these Filipino World War II heroes.

“The Senate passed this bill last April. I urge my colleagues in Congress to take note of this day to honor the heroic service of Filipino World War II veterans by finally turning this important legislation into law,” he said.

Obama recognized the long history and the special relationship between the US and its former colony.

The US Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, who spent some time in Hawaii, where Filipinos make up most of its residents, also recognized the positive contribution of migrant Filipinos to the US.

“On this anniversary, we also must recognize the enormous contributions of generations of Filipino immigrants to building a more vibrant United States of America. Indeed, more than 60 years after World War II, Filipino-Americans continue to serve brilliantly and bravely as members of our fighting forces,” he said.

“I grew up in Hawaii, where Filipinos have had an enormous positive impact on the culture and economy. As dedicated military and civil servants, lawyers and bankers, artists, engineers and entrepreneurs, agricultural and industrial laborers, healthcare providers and customer service workers, caretakers for our elderly and youth, Filipino Americans — four million strong — have enriched our country, embodied our nation’s highest ideals, and reflected the very best that the Philippines has to offer,” he added.

Projecting into the future, the Illinois senator expressed his desire to work with the Philippines and Filipinos.

“I look forward to working with the Filipino people and their government, as part of the global community, to combat poverty and generate wealth, build healthy and educated communities, and change the odds for generations to come,” he said.

The statement, characteristically inspiring, acknowledged the richness of the Philippines and committed to helping it through its many problems.

“But as a nation rich in natural and human resources, with a proud legacy as the first democracy in Asia, the Philippines also holds great opportunities and hope for the future. An ongoing challenge of the 21st century will be to ensure that these opportunities to make a better life are open to all,” he said.

“In part because of our shared history, we cannot ignore the fact that the Philippines continues to confront many difficult challenges, including persistent poverty, natural disasters, and political division,” he added.

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/topstories/topstories/view/20080613-142528/Mabuhay-says-Obama-to-Filipinos-on-Independence-Day


President’s office fails COA audit

June 3, 2008

By Malou Mangahas Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Unliquidated cash advances, “loans” without records, donations diverted to uses not prescribed by donors, understated expenses and overstated accounts in the hundreds of millions of pesos, all sourced from taxpayers’ money.

These irregular transactions in clear breach of government accounting and auditing rules mark financial transactions in the Office of the President (OP) under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2007, according to a Commission on Audit (COA) report, a copy of which was obtained by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

The report on the presidency for 2007 contained 11 qualified comments and observations on these erroneous entries – mostly the same errors COA had noted in its 2006 audit of the same office.

COA also pointed out that of the 11 audit recommendations it made in the 2006 audit, only four were fully implemented, three partially implemented, and four not implemented at all by Malacañang.

Thus, for the second year in a row, COA rendered “a qualified opinion on the fairness of the presentation of the financial statements of the OP.”

The OP Proper consists of “the Private Offices, the Presidential Assistant System, the Executive Offices, the General Government Administration Staff, the Internal Audit Service Unit, the Locally Funded/Foreign Assisted Projects, and the Other Executive Offices.” The OP also “directly supervises 58 other executive offices, agencies, commissions, and committees that warrant the special attention of the President.”

The OP kitty is obviously substantial. In 2007, the OP received total cash inflows of P3.38 billion, or 13 percent more than the P2.99 billion it got in 2006. Of the 2007 figure, P2.31 billion came from notices of cash allocation from the Department of Budget and Management. The OP collected another P1.06 billion as its share in the net earnings of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).

The OP likewise raised service income of P9.3 million, interest income of P4.05 million, and miscellaneous income of P3.3 million.

COA said that the OP’s total cash outflows reported in 2007 amounted to P2.67 billion, or 13 percent more than the P2.36 billion in 2006.

Non-employees got money

Where those monies went can be gleaned from the COA audit – somewhat. In its latest audit of the presidency signed by COA Director IV Bato S. Ali Jr., the agency said that as of Dec. 31, 2007, Arroyo’s Malacañang had:

• Failed to liquidate a total of P632.9 million of cash advances and receivables from officers, employees and other persons, on account of foreign and domestic travels that the President made, typically with a large retinue of political deputies and allies. Of the total, P594 million represented “cash advances granted to persons who are not employees of the OP.”

• Diverted “donations” totaling P37.3 million to expenses “outside of intended purposes,” contrary to provisions of the General Appropriations Act of 2007.

• Erroneously remitted and deposited collections on income from OP Bus Service Fares (P1.86 million collected from Malacañang employees) and entrance fees for the Presidential Museum (P1.74 million) in a Special Account in the Bureau of the Treasury (Btr), and not in the unappropriated surplus of the General Fund.

• Granted “loans” from the President’s Social Fund (PSF) using money from Pagcor in CY 2003 and January 2004 totaling P269.5 million without complete records.

• Erroneously classified collections and disbursements on electricity and water expenses of other agencies and government-owned and -controlled corporations in the books of accounts, resulting in the understatement of Other Payables account by P4.1 million, and overstatement of the Due to Other NGAs and Due to GOCCs accounts by P4.1 million and P21,422.23, respectively. (NGAs are national government agencies and GOCCs are government-owned and -controlled corporations.)

• Failed to reconcile physical count of office supplies, as well as of property and plant equipment, with balances per books, resulting in “the overstatement/understatement of various supplies” and “casting doubt on their reliability.”

• Failed to provide property, plant and equipment worth a total of P914.8 million with depreciation, “thus understating both the accumulated depreciation and depreciation expense accounts.”

• Enrolled balances of P186.7 million as “Due to Other NGAs” and P42.07 million as “Due to Other GOCCs” accounts that remain “doubtful” because of “unreconciled beginning balance” of P181.9 million, and P42.05 million, respectively.

Money changed hands

Of the P632.9 million in unliquidated cash advances and receivables, COA said P375.66 million was granted to various disbursing officers, including P222.98 million granted for foreign travels to just one Cashier.

Further verification by COA showed that “the Cashier who was granted such cash advances has not been a member or party to such foreign travels.” The practice, the report stressed, “is an indirect violation” of COA Circular 97-002, which says the “transfer of cash advance from one accountable officer to another shall not be allowed.”

The COA report added: “The cash advances on foreign travel granted to the Cashier who was not a party to the said travel could not directly/personally perform an act such as making disbursements and taking care of receipts where he/she is not present to such travel. This indicates that a person other than the one who was granted such cash advance made the disbursements abroad.”

Unbooked loans

Apart from unliquidated cash advances, COA for the second year in a row took issue with the unbooked “loans” that the presidency granted in 2003 and January 2004 under the so-called “Isang Bayan, Isang Produkto, Isang Milyong Piso” Program.

Arroyo institutionalized the program under Executive Order 176 in 2002, supposedly “to stimulate local economic activity and growth of small and medium enterprises (SMEs).”

Under the program, the President allocated a million pesos each to every city or municipality in the country. The amount went to individual “borrowers” who were reportedly granted not a doleout but a “loan” with six-percent interest, payable every three months to the Land Bank of the Philippines, across a four-year period.

Arroyo’s EO listed, among others, the Land Bank and the Small Business Guarantee and Finance Corp. (SBGFC) as funding sources, and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) as the lead agency.

The funds were in truth sourced from the President’s Social Fund (PSF), a discretionary account Arroyo controls, and which is funded by the presidency’s share in the net earnings of Pagcor and PCSO.

But the COA audit of the PSF showed deficiencies in the Fund. These include P216.5 million “loans” granted in 2003, and P52.9 million granted in January 2004 – all not recorded in the books.

No subsidiary records were maintained for each “borrower,” and neither were accomplishment and financial and terminal reports required and submitted, the COA revealed.

When COA requested records on the “loans,” Malacañang’s Director of Finance gave a peculiar explanation. According to the report, “(the) Finance Director…stated that all these documents are being stored in the Office of the Special Projects at the Presidential Management Staff and which were not submitted/attached along with the Dvs (disbursement vouchers) due to the bulkiness of such documents but can be available for verification anytime.”

Bus, museum fees

Another unusual error that COA discerned was the remittance or deposit of collections on income from OP Bus Service Fares (P1,856,218.88); entrance fees for the Presidential Museum (P1,742,261.88); and other miscellaneous income (full payments of sale of unserviceable properties and 10-percent bid bond of winning bidders) in the Bureau of the Treasury (BTr) as a Special Account (Fund 184) in the General Fund.

COA said that in the absence of any authorized law, these amounts should have been deposited in the unappropriated surplus of the General Fund, and remitted to the National Treasury.

When sought for an explanation, Arroyo’s deputies said the Palace maintains several buses to service the employees in going to their office and vice-versa. For the maintenance needs of the buses, fares are collected from the riding employees.

COA found out though that Malacañang had billed the repair and maintenance of the buses from the General Fund, and “not from this Special Account.”

Yet what might seem embarrassing and irregular at the same time is another COA finding: Arroyo had used P37.3 million in “donations” her office received for reasons “outside of intended purposes,” again in violation of the General Appropriations Act.

For the whole of 2007, the presidency received donations totaling P86 million:

• P80 million from the Manila Economic Cooperation Office in Taiwan;

• P5 million, with no particular purpose stated;

• P1 million for typhoon “Reming”; and

• P5,500 refund of financial assistance.

Of this total, COA said Arroyo disbursed P68 million, including P37.3 million for the following unintended purposes of the donations:

Purpose

Amount

1. Medical Assistance

P 13,433,078.35

2. Conferences/Seminars

P   2,761,800.00

3. Legal Assistance

P   1,214,103.91

4. Burial Assistance

P   1,104,500.00

5. Educational Assistance

P      443,000.00

6. Others

P 18,353,926.86

Total

P 37,310,409.12

It must be noted that years ago, a COA circular had disallowed using public funds as donations for burial assistance.

Why Arroyo had to use these donations for purposes other than that prescribed by donors is a puzzle. Her presidency has, in fact, functioned like a virtual social welfare agency: in 2007, it disbursed “donations” totaling P618.6 million, or an average of P51.5 million a month, using her own agency budget and cash inflows.

This amount is a significant increase from the P427.7 million in “donations” that the Palace disbursed in 2006, or an average of just P35.6 million a month. – With research by Isa Lorenzo